New York Targets Restaurants with Menu Plan

Published February 1, 2008

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R) is trying for the second time to force the city’s chain restaurants to display calorie information on their menus and menu boards, claiming a proposed ordinance would help conquer society’s ongoing obesity battle.

A vote scheduled for January was still pending at press time.

The proposal, which failed once in 2007 before being reintroduced in late October, says chain restaurants serve food with excess calories, ultimately providing consumers with a distorted perception of portion sizes, according to a statement issued by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYCDOHMH).

If approved, the ordinance would affect only 10 percent of the city’s 23,000 restaurants, according to a statement issued by the Department of Health.

“It [seems] unfair–there are many other restaurants that won’t be touched by this regulation,” said Ruth Kava, director of nutrition at the Manhattan-based American Council on Science & Health.

Rising Obesity Rates

One month before New York City aldermen reintroduced the plan, U.S. District Judge Richard Holwell struck down a similar proposal when the New York City Restaurant Association challenged the ordinance as preempting the federal Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990.

That law states restaurants are not required to label their menus, but if they choose to do so they must abide by the Food and Drug Administration’s broad guidelines.

“However, the judge affirmed the City’s authority to mandate posting of calorie information, stating the regulation would not be preempted if it applied to all chain restaurants with more than a certain number of outlets,” NYCDOHMH Commissioner Thomas Frieden said in an October 24 news release.

“The Health Department’s new proposal addresses this issue and updates the previous issue,” Frieden said.

Big Portions, Big People

The new measure targets chain restaurants with more than 15 locations, a detail necessary to tackle the court’s requirements for reconsideration.

The share of New York City’s adult population that is obese increased from 12.3 percent in 1995 to 21.7 percent in 2004, according to a 2004 NYCDOHMH Community Health Survey.

According to a study conducted by the city’s Department of Health, the calorie-posting regulation would result in at least 150,000 fewer New Yorkers being obese, leading to at least 30,000 fewer cases of diabetes–if the predicted calorie reduction proves similar to what was achieved by the Subway chain in recent years.

Questionable Value, Certain Burden

Some say the proposal is an effort to improve the public’s well-being, but others call it unnecessary government meddling that does nothing to teach people about good nutrition.

“It does no good to just tell people a calorie count if they don’t know what to do with that number,” Kava said. “Is a 500 calorie sandwich too many calories? [Is it] too little? It depends on how many calories that person should be consuming per day, and I doubt that most people have a good idea of their own caloric needs.

“I don’t think [the legislation is] useful,” Kava concluded, “and I don’t think it will help the obesity problem in this country.”

Restaurant owners fear the fiscal consequences of the proposed ordinance, claiming the cost of changing menus is too high and would be an unnecessary burden on small franchisees.

Melissa Mercer ([email protected]) writes from Maryland.