The Corner

The Pizza Police

If you had any doubt that President Obama is trying to transform America into a Washington-knows-best regulatory state, just think pizza.

That’s because his Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is about to hammer the makers of your favorite deep-dish or thin-crust delight with costly and ineffective new menu-labeling rules that cost a lot of cheese, so to speak, but skimp on real value.

Here’s something else that may not surprise you: These new menu-labeling requirements are brought to you courtesy of Obamacare. In addition to all the other taxes, fees, and requirements in the Affordable Care Act that will raise health-care costs, the new law also mandates that the FDA develop federal standards requiring restaurants to provide consumers with nutritional information.

Yes, providing such information is an important customer service. In fact, Congress has previously partnered with the restaurant industry to improve consumers’ access to information. It’s the FDA’s “my way or the highway” approach, their refusal to work with the industry, that is hurting consumers, not helping them.

A thoughtful national standard in and of itself is not a bad idea, particularly when contrasted to the inefficiency of a growing number of different state and city requirements. But the experience of companies such as Domino’s Pizza with the FDA’s new rule is a case study of big government run amok. Instead of finding a government agency open to promoting new ideas, creative thinking, and consumer benefit, Domino’s ran into narrow-minded, rigid bureaucrats apparently more interested in filling out paperwork than helping people. 

Enter the pizza police.

#more#It all started when the FDA proposed a requirement that every restaurant exhibit an in-store menu board listing the total calorie-content range of various kinds of pizza. You might be interested in knowing (or not) that an extra-large Brooklyn Style pie can have anywhere between 3,440 and 4,480 calories.

But who needs to know the calorie content of an entire pizza? And how “helpful” is a 1,000-calorie range depending on whether you choose vegetarian or extra cheese? Not to mention there are literally millions of different combinations of pizzas, crusts, toppings, etc. — all generating significantly different calorie counts.

Too bad, says the FDA. Every store has to display this information in exactly the same way. Period.

Atop this thick crust of irrelevant information and stale bureaucratic thinking, the Obama administration’s Office of Management and Budget calculates that this menu-labeling requirement may be one of the costliest regulations it has ever implemented. Domino’s estimates this menu requirement will cost each one of their franchises thousands of dollars to implement each year.

The nutritional boards may cost a lot of dough, but at least the pizza-loving populace will be exposed to the caloric details of their feast, right? Hardly. Ninety percent of Domino’s customers never see the menu sign. That’s because they place their orders on the Internet or over the phone; whether the pie is delivered or picked up in-store, at best the consumer would see the calorie sign only after the order is placed.

Doesn’t matter, says the FDA. There are rules and they will be followed. Period.

And this is where the story really gets ridiculous. Rather than just fight this ineffective, costly fiat (some estimates are that the menu requirements could cost these small business franchises 10 percent of their store profits), Domino’s recommended a much better solution. They suggested not only that the information be provided in calories per slice (the way most customers think about it), but also that it instead be provided online (where most customers would actually see the information before they make their purchases). Domino’s also developed a consumer-friendly technology tool that would recalculate the calorie count for customers based on the toppings and crusts ordered.

What has been the pizza police’s response so far? Based on letters the FDA sent members of the House and the Senate who have called for flexibility in the rule: No way. Everyone must follow the rule precisely and literally, even if the information mandated is never seen by consumers or doesn’t match the way people think about their calorie intake.

We need more flexibility from the Obama administration in its approach to these issues. We need the bureaucrats to recognize that the industry being regulated just might have a good idea about how to get the same information, or better, to consumers at a lower cost. Unfortunately, there is a certain arrogance on the part of this White House, which turns a tin ear to better, cheaper, more innovative public-policy solutions. The new pizza police is just the latest example of now all-too-familiar government overreach.

— Representative Fred Upton (R., Mich.) is chairman of the House Commerce Committee. Cathy McMorris Rodgers is chairwoman of the House Republican Conference.


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