While most consumers are blissfully unaware, a provision tucked into the Affordable Care Act could cause food vendors a lot of headaches. Starting on December 1, 2016, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is supposed to require all chain food restaurants with 20 or more locations will have to list calorie information for “standard menu items” on all signs and printed menus. This includes pizza shops and grocery store salad or hot food bars which offer dizzying arrays of options and some that change daily. But businesses are fighting back and this week the House Energy and Commerce Committee passed a bill backed by many in the industry.
The rule, which is intended to help Americans watch their waistlines, would cost shops—many of which are franchises owned by small business people—thousands of dollars to re-design signs and menus and millions of hours in compliance. In fact, the provision was named “third-most-onerous regulation of 2013” by President Obama’s own Office of Management and Budget. As I wrote earlier this month, the costs associated with calorie testing might also force craft beers off the menus of chain restaurants.
If approved by Congress, the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act of 2015 (H.R. 2017) would amend the FDA’s rules, adding flexibility in how chains comply with the nutritional disclosure requirement. Pizza shops, for example, would be allowed to disclose the nutritional content of their menu items online—a good thing since almost none of their customers ever enter their shops. It also removes criminal penalties for restaurants that accidentally serve customers a larger order than they expected. Seems reasonable enough, right?
Unsurprisingly, those who think they know what’s best for everyone (aka public health advocates) are staunchly opposed to any loosening of the calorie labeling requirements. This is despite the fact that research shows the new rule isn’t likely to do anything to help combat obesity in America. When Brian Elbel, a population-health expert at the New York University School of Medicine, examined the effects of New York City and Philadelphia’s calorie menu labeling requirement, he found no significant change in the customers’ orders. Some studies have even found that customers consume more calories when the information is posted!
We’ll never convince health advocates that their meddling has unintended side-effects or that it simply doesn’t work at all, but perhaps Congress will have a little more common sense when it comes to food labeling. But I’m not holding my breath.