Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Restaurant labels

The Farm Policy weblog had high praise for the "refreshing editorial" about restaurant labels in today's Wall Street Journal. The editorial favored FDA's recent voluntary calorie labeling proposal over the mandatory approach of Senator Harkin and Rep. DeLauro in Congress: "As sure as New Year's resolutions follow holiday gorging, watch for 'mislabeling' lawsuits." (Perhaps the Journal has a low opinion of the honesty of the restaurant chains.) The editorial continues, "Watch too, for prices to go up; a legislative labeling mandate isn't cost-free for restaurant owners."

I don't imagine the Journal's editorialists will be convinced by a link to the Center for Science in the Public Interest's report on restaurant labels (even though the CSPI report has a nice feature called "Who would guess?," which shows how difficult it is to estimate calories without labeling). Instead, I should quote the view of the Journal's own favorites at FDA at greater length than the editorial did, because it somewhat rebuts the restaurant industry's whining about costs:

The [Obesity Working Group] recommends that FDA encourage restaurants to provide more, and more readily available, nutrient content information at the point-of-sale. The restaurant industry has voiced concern that requiring nutrition labeling for all menu items is infeasible because recipes change frequently, and patrons often request customization of their meals and the number of options available for customization is large.... Nevertheless, the OWG believes that the restaurant industry could provide some level of nutrition information to its patrons to enhance their ability to make wise food choices. Calculating nutrition information may have been a difficult task for most members of this industry in the past, when such information had to be determined by direct chemical analysis. This task, however, is easier today because nutrient composition databases and software for labeling are readily available.

Or, to pick another fairly mainstream source, here are two of USDA's intrepid economists writing in Choices, the magazine of the American Agricultural Economics Association:

One of the most widely discussed information blackout zones is for food sold at restaurants and fast-food establishments. Although the 1994 National Labeling and Education Act requires that manufacturers include a nutrition information panel on the label of almost all packaged foods, it does not require any similar disclosure for foods purchased at restaurants—food away from home (FAFH). This information requirement gap may be increasingly important as a source of information failure. Not only are Americans consuming large amounts of FAFH, but the nutritional content of FAFH tends to be less healthy than foods prepared at home.

The revolution in eating out is one leading suspect in the obesity epidemic. Whether mandatory or voluntary, restaurant calorie labels should be widely adopted. That would be refreshing.

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