Thad and I both said that the restaurants were trying to get ahead of the nanny-state push to make restaurant food healthier, as seen in this rather egregious effort from New York. It turns out that we were right--but we had no idea that the new nanny-state regulations were contained within the health care bill itself, and that restaurants, likely aware of this fact, were apparently betting on the legislation passing:
Buried deep in the health care legislation that President Obama signed on Tuesday is a new requirement that will affect any American who walks into a McDonald’s, Starbucks or Burger King. Every big restaurant chain in the nation will now be required to put calorie information on their menus and drive-through signs.
In other words, as soon as 2011 it will be impossible to chomp down on a Big Mac without knowing that it contains over 500 calories, more than a quarter of the Agriculture Department’s 2,000-calorie daily guideline.
The legislation also requires labels on food items in vending machines, meaning that anybody tempted by a king-size Snickers bar will know up front that it packs 440 calories.
The measure is intended to create a national policy modeled on a requirement that has already taken effect in New York City and was to go into effect in 2011 in places like California and Oregon. The new federal law requires restaurant chains with 20 or more outlets to disclose calorie counts on their food items and supply information on how many calories a healthy person should eat in a day.[...]
The measure was approved by Congress with little public discussion, in part because restaurant chains supported it. They had spent years fighting such requirements, but they were slowly losing the battle. Confronting a potential patchwork of conflicting requirements adopted by states and cities, they finally asked Congress to create a single national standard.
“We have been strong advocates and supporters in trying to ensure this provision became law, and are extremely pleased that it was signed into law today,” Sue Hensley, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association, said on Tuesday. “The association and the industry were supportive because consumers will see the same types of information in more than 200,000 restaurant locations across the country.”
Now, I'm not opposed to restaurants providing customers with information about the calorie content of menu items. It's certainly helpful, when we're trying to make healthy food choices, to know, for instance, that a McDonald's (tm) four-piece chicken nugget kids' meal with fries and small soda contains 520 calories, and that a ten-piece chicken nugget meal with supersized soda and fries has 1,340 (not counting the extra hundred calories you consume if you use two packages of most of the available dipping sauces). I know that, were I to be sitting at Chili's (tm) and looking at a menu, it might make a lot of difference to me in terms of what I'd order if I knew that the Guiltless Grill Salmon entree contained 530 calories and a side of seasonal veggies added 80, while an order of Crispy Honey-Chipotle Chicken Crispers with ranch contained 1,950 calories and the side of fries added an extra 380, plus the 190 from the corn on the cob (and that's not the most calorie-laden item on the menu, nor does it include the calories from any beverages ordered).
In other words, what if restaurants put nutrition facts all over their menus, and consumers keep on ordering and eating unhealthy, fattening foods? Will restaurants then be penalized for every entree over, say, six or seven hundred calories on the menu? Will diners pay a "fat tax" on certain dishes? Will some of the ingredients that raise caloric value be banned, or taxed so heavily that restaurants will stop using them?
I recognize that obesity is a great problem in America, and I also see that restaurants, with their oversized portions and seemingly healthy choices which are anything but (some restaurant salads are over 2,000 calories apiece when served with dressing, for instance), play a part in this. But I wonder what our founding fathers would have thought of the idea that the central government could, for the most part, override local governments by insisting that one central menu labeling law be packed into a health care bill and require, on the grounds of public health, that all restaurants with more than twenty stores abide by this Washington-based policy.
Of course, I wonder what our founding fathers would have thought of the idea that the central government should be making decisions about the health care of individual Americans, too--but that's a different topic altogether.