Nanny State

Chefs in Ireland Are Fighting a Mandatory Menu Calorie Count Law

“I’ll pay whatever fine I have to, but I will never put calories on my menu,” says chef Wade Murphy.

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Some of Ireland's leading chefs are protesting a proposed mandatory restaurant calorie labeling law, with several of the country's top chefs saying they'll defy the law should it take effect.

Ireland's health ministry has toyed with the idea of menu calorie labeling for some time. But reports last week indicated the government would press on with legislation after reviewing public comments on its proposal (which the government also did in 2015).

"I'll pay whatever fine I have to, but I will never put calories on my menu," chef Wade Murphy—whose award-winning restaurant 1826 Adare serves sumptuous and authentically Irish dishes such as Cured and Marinated Organic Irish Salmon and Wild Irish Venisontold the Irish Times last week. "Never."

The Times reports other "chefs and restaurateurs across the country" are outraged. "We won't be doing it, as stated many times before, we will NEVER put calories on the menus," famed Dublin chef Eamon O'Reilly, holder of two Michelin stars, said in a tweet that also dubbed the plan "nonsensical, ridiculous & totally impractical."

The lead lobbyist for pub owners in Ireland, Donall O'Keefe, warns the proposal is an "administrative nightmare…. [that] will add to costs."

The leading Irish restaurant lobby, the Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI), has opposed plans for mandatory calorie labeling on restaurant menus for years. The RAI says testing menu items and revising menus will cost the average restaurant around $10,000.

Adrian Cummins, head of RAI, says the group's members are "totally opposed" to the plan. He details the reasons behind RAI's position here. They include dramatic compliance costs, a shortage of Irish chefs, and the fact calories counts alone, without context, "are not a good measure of healthy menus."

Cummins calls the calorie mandate "nanny-statism at its best" and says his members will leave the country if forced to comply with the law.

Leading Dublin chef Gaz Smith, also an award winner, penned a spectacular op-ed last week in the Irish Daily Mail blasting the proposal.

"This seems like another Nanny State box-ticking exercise by the government with no real thought on genuine implementation, the realities of the costs and time of getting it accurate, and the burden it will place on smaller independent restaurants and cafes that are already swamped in regulations, legislation, VAT increases, and the ever-soaring insurance costs," Smith writes.

As the Irish Times notes, Smith has had a little fun with the proposed mandate by placing a warning on his menus that each dish he crafts contains somewhere between one and 1,000,000 calories.

While that latter figure is a joke, the Irish are indeed among the world's top consumers of calories. Many are obese. The government's plan is intended to combat that problem.

But research consistently shows menu calorie labeling is not an effective tool for combating obesity. If menu labeling rules are "grounded in science," I wrote in 2017, "that science is shoddy." As I detailed in a 2014 column, "research show[s] mandatory menu-labeling doesn't work—and may even be counterproductive."

Last week's Irish Times report suggests the calorie-labeling scheme is supported by research, citing a study that purportedly found "people order less and consume fewer calories when information on calorie content is included on menus." That study, by researchers from Dublin's Economic & Social Research Institute (ESRI), concluded what some others have found: Consumers who noticed calories printed after a menu item "ordered and ate fewer calories."

But ESRI isn't a neutral observer. Reports last year indicated ESRI had been "drafted in to help with the legislation" on calorie counts. What's more, while the study details I reviewed don't include data about what percentage of people who took part in the study actually noticed the calorie counts, the study's results appear to track closely with thoroughly unconvincing earlier research I debunked in a 2016 column: "Contradictory studies that have touted menu labeling tend to be filled with qualifiers, along the lines of a small percentage of the small percentage of consumers who self-reported that they noticed calorie information on restaurant menus reduced their calorie intake by a small amount." (To be fair, the Irish study was based on actual research observations rather than consumer self-reporting.)

Last year Simon Harris, Ireland's health minister, said the government would soon push for calorie labeling. "I would hope that businesses across the country will, by their own initiative, lead on this issue," Harris said at the time. Irish businesses are doing just that—though probably not in the way Harris intended. Good for them.