As I'm sure most of you know, New York City recently passed an extremely progressive law requiring all chain restaurants (with more than ten stores) to list calorie information on all menu items. Seattle enacted a similar requirement last year, and just a few months ago the first phase of a broad menu-labeling law went into effect across the entire state of California.
On its face, these regulations appear to strike a fairly reasonable compromise between helping consumers make better-informed eating choices and placing a too-onerous burden on restaurants.
Until I thought about it a bit deeper.
Admittedly, the "pros" of restaurant calorie labeling are obvious and easy to explain. You can state them in two quick bullet points:
1) More information for the consumer, who can then make a better eating decision.
2) Calorie labeling should (in theory) encourage the restaurant and restaurant supply industries to "try harder" and make palatable foods without automatically relying on fat, salt and sugar.
That was easy, wasn't it? Clear, simple and highly compelling--and incidentally, perfect for a soundbite-based discussion on TV. So it sounds like we have an open and shut case, right? Right?
Well, even a seemingly bulletproof law should be able to stand up under a little scrutiny, so let's be intellectually fair and lay out the "con" side of the debate. Admittedly, the cons are not quite as easy to explain, and in some cases they are highly counterintuitive. Stay with me here:
1) Costs: Consumers end up paying for these regulations, because businesses will pass on the costs in the form of higher prices or cuts in other services. Sure, some of us want calorie data, but is it fair to make all consumers bear the costs?
2) Competition: The smallest chain restaurants (those which barely meet the minimum 10 stores) would suffer the greatest burden of following the regulations, while the largest chain restaurants can spread any costs over a much larger store base. This hurts the competitiveness of minor chains to the advantage of the mega-chains. Is calorie information worth it if it reduces restaurant choices? Is that pro-consumer?
3) Labeling requirements will have the counterintuitive result of increasing a chain's incentive to use artificial sweeteners and other chemicals (example: your local Au Bon Pain kills off their delicious 275 calorie chocolate croissants made with fresh butter and confectioner's sugar, replacing them with 199 calorie croissants containing I Can't Believe It's Not Butter and aspartame). The regulations would create a perverse incentive for restaurants to serve less healthy food.
4) Finally, the most abstruse "con" of all: Should the government even be involved between the consumer and what he eats in a restaurant? Is this a "slippery slope" law that may lead to more arbitrary laws in the future with deeper and more serious unintended consequences?
Before you assume I've been bought off by the restaurant industry (seriously, if you believe that, you haven't been reading Casual Kitchen for very long), re-read these con arguments again and think about them with a genuinely open mind. Things are not always as they seem.
Clearly, no calorie labeling advocate would deliberately intend to raise costs to the consumer, nor want to limit competition in the restaurant industry. And no labeling advocate would ever intend for foods to have more chemicals added to them. Right? And yet, these are all highly plausible, if perverse, consequences of the new rules. (See other examples of how regulations can cause extremely perverse results.)
Admittedly, the cons to the calorie labeling issue are complex, difficult to explain, and in some cases too counterintuitive for people to grasp. After all, it's notoriously difficult for people to perceive a law's unintended consequences if those consequences are unlikely for them.
But just because these points are difficult or counterintuitive doesn't mean that they are any less significant to the debate, especially for a new type of law the likes of which we've never really seen before in the United States.
I'll leave you with one final (and again, counterintuitive) question: Since the introduction in the early 1990s of stricter packaged food labeling regulations, what has happened to American obesity rates?
Exactly. Those regulations, despite their popularity, had no effect whatsoever on obesity--obesity rates accelerated upward during the 1990s! Are we barking up the wrong tree?
Readers, what are your thoughts?
Guess What? We Spend Less Than Ever on Food
Spreading the New Frugality: A Manifesto
On the True Value of a Forgotten Restaurant Meal
Ten Tips on How to Cut Your Food Budget Using the 80/20 Rule
If It's So Cheap to Cook at Home, Then Why is My Grocery Bill So Huge?
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Posted by Daniel at 3:11 AM on Sunday, October 25, 2009