3.19.2015

Food Issues Book Club: Appetite for Profit, Chapter 9

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Appetite for Profit, Chapter 9:
Eating in the Dark - Nutrition Labeling in Restaurants

Summary:

At both the state and federal levels, food industry lobbyists have kept the conversation about restaurant nutrition labeling off the table.*  It's no wonder, given that such labeling could interfere with the hundreds of billions of dollars Americans spend in restaurants each year.  It could also let consumers know, though, that they're consuming two to three times the calories in their one restaurant meal than they would in a similar meal at home.

The National Restaurant Association (NRA) and related industry front groups like to preach about "personal responsibility" when it comes to food and health.  It is ironic, then, that it fights tooth and nail to prevent consumers from getting information about food in restaurants.  "How can consumers become more educated or act more responsibly without access to the information they need to make more informed choices?"

Those restaurants that do provide nutrition information, but in ways that are difficult to access, are similar to the fast food restaurants that serve salads: the promise gets customers in the door, but when it comes time to order their choices don't change.  This is at least partly because of the way the information is being offered: currently if the information in plain sight, it's on a poster with a tiny font and often outdated information.  For those using a drive-thru, it is entirely inaccessible.  Information printed on menus and menu boards is far more effective in changing behaviors, which is precisely why it threatens the food industry.

Industry pundits have claimed that the loss of sales due to menu labeling would lead to layoffs, closures, and other hardships - and also that people wouldn't pay attention to such labeling anyway.  Both of these things cannot be true.  "In the end, their decision [not to label menus] reflects that they don't want to do it, not that they can't."

*as of 2006

Discussion:

Menu labeling is an issue on which Simon and I seem to see eye to eye.  At least for large chain restaurants, each argument against it is nothing short of ludicrous.
  • It's too expensive?  You've already calculated the information and put it online, and you redesign your menu / menu boards each time you roll out a new product.
  • People don't care?  Then you have nothing to lose as far as sales, and are merely missing a great PR stunt.
The only plausible reason for the pushback is that providing nutrition information where it can't be avoided will cause fewer sales.  Not all consumers will change their habits when faced with the information, for instance, that 6 chicken nuggets (all by themselves, no sauce, drink, or fries) contain 18g of fat and 540mg of sodium - but some will.  You needn't lose any sleep over poor McD's losing money.  Given that it made a net profit of close to $5 billion in 2014 (with a gross income of $16.5 billion), I think it can weather a few lost sales.  (Not to mention that it could afford to pay a living wage... but that's a different discussion.  All of a piece though, innit?)

Lucky for Simon and I (and, you know, everybody), the FDA finalized a new rule in November 2014 mandating nutrition labeling on menus and menu boards at all restaurants with 20 or more locations.  HUZZAH!  This, obviously, covers every fast food chain - where there is arguably the most dire need for such information.  One downside is that the rule doesn't have to be implemented until November 2015; that's actually not far away though.  The other, possibly more pertinent, downside is that the rule stems from the one and only Affordable Care Act... also known as OBAMACARE.

This has got my conspiracy theory wheels turning like mad.  If conservatives manage to repeal the ACA, menu labeling will be over before it's begun.  Isn't it convenient that a new president will be elected just three weeks before the rule must be implemented?  That's probably coincidence.  (HA HA it's also not accurate - I'm a year off.  Leaving it in because that's funny.)  But I do wonder, now, how vocal the food lobbyists have been regarding the potential repeal.  After all, when FDA announced the rule, the Grocery Manufacturers Association had this to say: "We are disappointed that the F.D.A.'s final rules will capture grocery stores, and impose such a large and costly regulatory burden on our members.”  Poooor little grocery stores with more than 20 locations.  How ever will they get by?

The only legit argument against menu labeling comes from small, locally owned restaurants - those owned by human beings rather than corporations.  Last year I drafted an op ed on the subject of menu labeling, but opted not to submit it for publication specifically because menu labeling really could be a significant hardship for small local businesses.  I submit it to you here and now merely for the sake of discussion; enjoy.


Good Information is Good Business for New Orleans Restaurants

In New Orleans we live to eat, and it’s killing us.  But it doesn’t have to!  All we need is more information about what we’re eating.  Let’s ask restaurants to give it to us.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), heart disease is a leading killer in the South. It causes a quarter of all deaths in Louisiana, meaning that thousands of people die from it every year here.  It’s what my grandma died of; I’d bet that we all have a family member who’s had a heart attack (or two), or has passed from cardiovascular disease.  Doctors agree that we should limit our fat and calories to manage our weight and to avoid heart attacks and strokes.  But we can’t follow that advice unless we know what’s in our food.

We’ve got a pretty good idea that we should eat around 2000 calories a day, give or take. AHA suggests that we eat less than 16 grams of saturated fat a day.  Great!  We know what to do!  Now what?

In general we know that meat, fried foods, and seafood (usually fried and drenched in heavy sauces and gravies) can be high in calories and fat, ­ but how many?  How much?  Without a restaurant’s recipes, we can’t calculate these numbers for ourselves. And something tells me that Commander’s Palace isn’t giving up the real recipe to their turtle soup anytime soon.
If restaurants want to keep their proprietary recipes a secret, that’s fine.  They should!  All we need from them is some basic nutritional information, like the amounts of calories and fat in their dishes.  Then we’ll be better able to make our own responsible choices based on how a dish fits in with our normal diets.  Without this info, though, we can’t dine out and also take “personal responsibility” for our health.  I don’t know about y’all, but I for one have no intention to stop eating out!

Restaurants may say that providing nutrition information is too difficult or time-consuming. They may worry that customers won’t want to order dishes that are too high in fat or calories. To them I’d say that it’s we, the customers, who make their businesses work.  If they don’t want to give us what we ask for, we can go elsewhere.  And as people who really, truly love food, there’s no number that will keep us away from our favorite dishes.  After all, we can just eat smaller portions.  However, refusing to give us the info we need could easily turn us away to competitors.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who has wondered about the calorie or fat count of a po­boy at Parkway.  But without nutritional information from the folks who know what’s really in the food, we’re just making wild guesses.  Let’s ask our local restaurants to provide basic nutrition information, so that we can take charge of our own health and also keep enjoying our favorite dishes for years to come.  After all, where would our favorite restaurants be if we wouldn’t eat at them anymore?

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