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Congress Gets Some Common Sense on Nutritional Disclosure

Election years are particular divisive for lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Yet, last week members of the House managed to put partisan politics aside and approve a bill that would ease the regulatory burden of mandatory, one-size-fits-all menu labeling requirements. While some portray the proposal as “denying” consumers information, what it really does is give food service businesses flexibility in how they provide relevant nutritional information and other common sense alterations.

The Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act of 2015 (H.R. 2017), introduced by Reps. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), passed in the House 266-144, with 33 Democrats and 233 Republicans approving the measure. The bill amends the Food and Drug Administration’s labeling requirements for food vendors with 20 or more locations; the product of a little known provision within Affordable Care Act, which required restaurants to provide calorie counts on physical menus. For small franchise owners, grocery store hot or cold bars with variable items, and pizzerias, whose customers order primarily by phone, the requirement is costly, burdensome, and may not even help consumers make “better” choices.

According to research on the effects of calorie labeling mandates in New York City and Philadelphia, the requirement will likely have no significant effect on obesity rates. According to various studies of real-world ordering behavior, calorie requirements resulted in no change to ordering behavior. But a study commissioned by New York City found that of 11 chains examined, three saw reduced calorie ordering, but seven saw customers ordering more calories when they knew how much was in each meal!

While some, like the much criticized Center for Science in the Public Interest and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) argued that that H.R. 2017 denies customers information and allows restaurants to define serving sizes in misleading ways, the information is still available for consumers who want it. The proposal allows businesses to choose whether to provide calories for the whole product, the number of servings and the number of calories per serving or to provide nutrition information for the common unit of division. It allows shops with “variable menu items,” like pizza shops that have potentially millions of combinations, to list calories for individual components. Furthermore, for businesses that rely primarily on delivery, the bill allows them to post nutrition information online rather than on a physical menu in the store that the vast majority of customers would never see. And perhaps most importantly, the bill removes the possibility of criminal penalties for establishments that serve more or less than a “standard serving size.”

None of this sounds too crazy, does it? If you believe that people who want to watch their calories are smart enough to understand how to understand calories per serving size, it’s not. But there are those who would paint the no-brainer H.R. 2017 as an effort by “Big Pizza” to dupe people into eating more than they want. In reality, the original ACA menu labeling law was pushed by the nation’s biggest chain restaurants because they—with menus that are identical throughout the country—would gain a distinct advantage over their smaller and less uniform competitors, such as convenience and grocery stores. And this is why they fought any exemptions or modification of the menu labeling law. Does anyone really believe they were lobbying against efforts to exempt convenience and grocery stores from the menu-labeling requirements because they care about consumers’ access to nutritional information?

As it stands, the FDA’s menu labeling requirement, which was named “third-most-onerous regulation” by President Obama’s own Office of Management and Budget when it was introduced, would cost an estimated $1 billion for grocery stores alone. Luckily, members of the House were able to see past the hyperbolic rhetoric and approve a bill that would give customers the nutrition information they want while minimizing the harm and cost to small businesses. Let’s hope the Senate and the White House have as much common sense.