Critical Condition

When Did Restaurant Regulation Creep into the Health-Care Bill?

Like the gift that just keeps giving, both the House and Senate versions of the health-care bill are filled with unexpected treasures. One might suppose that taking over almost a fifth of the national economy would be enough for one bill, but now it turns out that both bills also extend the nanny state into restaurants and supermarket-deli operations.

The relevant section is titled “Nutrition Labeling of Standard Menu Items at Chain Restaurants,” and the gist is that restaurants and retailers that serve prepared foods will have to display on the menu a “nutrient content disclosure statement,” which will list the calories of each item and a “succinct statement concerning suggested daily caloric intake” designed “to enable the public to understand, in the context of a total daily diet, the significance of the caloric information that is provided on the menu.” The information must also be available in writing and there must be signage advising that it is available.

Restaurants’ daily specials are exempted, but drive-through windows are not. Nor are vending-machine operators. The regulation applies to any outlet with at least twenty stores — including not just centrally owned and operated companies, but also franchises.

It is not surprising that this regulation made it into the bills. Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa) is a big supporter and, more broadly, the idea fits into the now-trendy notion among the Michael Pollan crowd that the focus on medicine and insurance is somewhat misplaced as the real focus should be on food and nutrition.

Besides, hardly anyone important in the food business is opposing the regulation. Similar legislation, known as the LEAN Act, was endorsed by a who’s who of the restaurant industry, including the National Restaurant Association (NRA). Partly this is because most big fast-food chains publish this info anyway, partly because the industry wants to preempt state and local standards with a federal one and, partly because the NRA is desperately trying to avoid having restaurants blamed for national obesity issues.

The specific problem is that there is not the slightest scintilla of evidence that making such information available changes behavior. California has health warnings so ubiquitous that everyone seems to ignore them. The government mandated that private companies make substantial expenditures to make sure that fresh foods have country-of-origin labeling on them. This was done at the behest of U.S. producers who thought such labeling would swing business to them. Yet there is no evidence that consumers have changed purchasing habits.

Because the cost of executing this new nutritional-labeling requirement is paid by the private sector, it doesn’t show up when the Congressional Budget Office scores the cost of the bill — but a cost it is. Since we have no reason to think there is any effect to this new labeling requirement, we can presume that lots of money will wind up being spent with little or no effect.

Besides, what if some people would prefer to simply enjoy an occasional indulgence without being reminded of the caloric intake involved in a vichyssoise? Is that really behavior so beyond the pale that it should be made illegal in restaurant chains? Look ahead and suppose the very likely result: disclosure and education don’t produce the desired outcome. How long until the Feds will outright ban high-calorie foods?

When did we have the national debate that disclosures with our tuna-salad sandwiches from the supermarket deli are urgently required? When did we discuss that diverting resources to pastrami-on-pumpernickel is prudent — and if the health-care bill deals with such minutiae, what else is hidden in its pages? And how could any “leader” worthy of the name risk voting for it before we know what is even in the bill?

— Jim Prevor is the founder and CEO of Phoenix Media Network, Inc.

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