Restaurant Menu Labeling Mandate Debated

Published July 1, 2009

Citing a need to curb childhood obesity, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) has signed on as Senate sponsor of a federal bill to require calorie counts on restaurant menus.

House Resolution 2426, the Menu Education and Labeling (MEAL) Act, would extend federal food labeling requirements from packaged products to items on menus in “large chain restaurants.”

“This common-sense legislation will give parents and other consumers the basic information they need to make good choices about their diet when they’re eating out at restaurants,” said Gillibrand in a statement.

More ‘Government Intrusiveness’

“Where does it end?” asked Grace-Marie Turner, president of the Washington, DC-based Galen Institute. “Congress is considering taxes on soft drinks and snack foods. Now the federal government is proposing a new regulation requiring calorie counts on all menus? Not only will that drive up the cost of restaurant meals, but it will significantly impede innovation.”

“The nanny state seems to know no bounds,” said Turner. “This is a level of government intrusiveness we don’t need.”

Labeling’s Failure Noted

According to the text of the bill, “about 75 percent of adults reports using food labels on packaged foods, which is associated with eating more healthful diets, and approximately half of adults report that the nutrition information on food labels has caused them to change their minds about buying a food product; and studies have shown that the provision of nutrition information for away-from-home foods has a positive influence on food purchase decisions.”

The evidence shows otherwise, says Merrill Matthews, Ph.D., executive director of the Council for Affordable Health Insurance. “The federal government already requires calorie counts on soft drinks and packaged pastries like Twinkies,” Matthews said. He added sarcastically, “That has worked so well to reduce junk food consumption and obesity rates that some states—including New York—are now considering taxing those products as a way of encouraging people to stop consuming them.”

John R. Graham, director of health policy studies at the Pacific Research Institute, said, “Earth to Senator Gillibrand: Someone who eats at Wendy’s seven times a week is not going to pay attention to calories listed on menu boards.”

“[More] labeling is not the answer to our country’s obesity problem,” said Tennessee state Rep. Susan Lynn (R-Mt. Juliet). “As evidence, simply consider the fact that Americans have grown heavier, not slimmer, since other food labeling laws have come into effect.”

Seen as Lawsuit Generator

The MEAL Act could put the nation on the road to more food-related lawsuits, said Graham.

“This legislation is likely more about junk lawsuits than junk food,” Graham said. “The trial lawyers have been busy developing a strategy to profit from fast food ever since an infamous New York case six years ago, when a couple of obese girls sued McDonald’s. The suit failed, but McDonald’s settled, and so have nine other defendants in similar cases.

“And they have just begun,” Graham added. “The Public Health Advocacy Institute’s 5th Conference on Public Health, Law, and Obesity met in Boston last year to discuss our ‘broken food system’—a term more appropriate to Darfur than America. I can see the next junk-food lawsuit already: a class-action against Jack-in-the-Box for selling a Bacon Ultimate Cheeseburger that’s 10 calories more than what’s posted on the board.”

Lynn agreed, saying, “The MEAL Act stands to cause food prices to increase for consumers due to the cost of implementation, and due to future litigation costs from those that would exploit this mandate.”

Ignoring Serious Issues

“If Senator Gillibrand is so concerned about transparency in health, how about working with health care providers to find a way for patients and consumers to have better access to prices they will pay for their care?” Matthews said.

The MEAL Act, which was sponsored in the House of Representatives by Rep. Rosie DeLauro (D-CT), is currently being considered in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

Joe Emanuel ([email protected]) writes from Georgia.

For more information …

House Resolution 2426, the Menu Education and Labeling Act: