NY Restaurants win in battle with city over calorie content

I posted about this awhile ago (“Raise your hand if you think eating at McDonalds is good for you“), but now there is an update in the situation. First for some background: NYC sees rise in fat people, thinks citizens can’t think for themselves and wants to require restaurants to post nutrition info on menus directly next to food item of interest. Restaurant association gets upset – says it’s not fair, and that it punishes many of those who already voluntarily post the info on their website or chart in the restaurant.

Says Big Brother NYC officials:

The regulation will counteract “an obesity epidemic” in New York…The city argued that posting calorie information in a prominent place would have had “a substantial potential for public health impact” and that consumers were likely to decrease their intake if they knew how many calories they were eating.

The state restaurant association:

[They] challenged the regulation by arguing that it was technically superseded by the federal Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, which requires nutritional labeling on all packaged foods and outlines some criteria for restaurants that voluntarily post their own caloric information.

Manhattan District Court Judge Holwell took the side of the restaurants (though it appears there is still plenty of room left for the city to tweak the legislation so it’s legal).

I’ve got a couple points to make – first, NYC officials lose points for misusing the term “epidemic”. Obesity cannot be an epidemic, flu and other infectious diseases can (let me know if you ever get fat just from standing next to an obese person who breathes on or touches you, and I can add it into the epidemic category). Second – they thought that by merely making the information more obvious and in-your-face, that people will magically make healthy choices. Seriously? If you’ve already followed the fried-potato smell from the street into the McDonalds, you’re not going to turn around and walk out after seeing exactly how much fat is in that Big Mac. The people who eat at those places on a regular basis tend to order the same thing each time anyway, so they probably don’t even glance at the menu. (side note – I once knew someone who referred to a quarter pounder with cheese as a “snack” – all the labeling in the world won’t change that mindset) Third – NYC officials wrote the legislation because of the “potential” to make a public health impact. Aren’t you happy that the city experiments with your tax dollars, instead of spending time and money on things that are proven to benefit public health? Just gives me a warm fuzzy feeling…

But I’m not letting the restaurant association off too easy. A spokesperson for the group said that:

federal regulations that require nutritional information on packaged food have done little to combat obesity. “We feel the way to address obesity is through education, not legislation,” he said.

I’m willing to agree that nutritional info on packaged goods probably hasn’t had a huge impact. Although I tend to look at the labels when shopping in order to avoid foods really high in salt or saturated fat, my guess is someone who is not as health-conscious (and thus more likely to be obese) could care less that the labels are there. As for education over legislation, I don’t know how I feel about that. Certainly I won’t side immediately with legislation for its effectiveness – in my opinion legislation tends to consist more often than not of nanny-state regulations – an attempt to control how you live your life. But I’m not convinced education has a huge impact. Yes you need some education if you want to know what you should eat, but how many people who went to public schools and had the food pyramid beaten into them actually eat according to those guidelines? (I mean, let’s be honest – I know I don’t get the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables everyday.) Incentives are what people need – carrot and stick. Reward people for healthy choices, punish people for unhealthy choices. But this isn’t the job of the government (or it shouldn’t be, but of course I also don’t think they should be involved in health care to the extent they are) – health insurance companies and businesses that pay health insurance premiums for their employees are the ones who should be in the incentive-business. You don’t really have the option of switching countries if you disagree with the government, but you can always change jobs if you don’t like your employer.

To read about how financial incentives can help people lose weight, check out this article from the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (via SciGuy)

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