January 3rd, 2013
Restaurant owners across the country are gearing up for the implementation of a little known aspect of the Health Care and Education Affordability Reconciliation Act of 2010 - part of what is known as ObamaCare. These regulations require chain restaurants with over 20 stores having the same menu to post the caloric values for items on their menu. It also requires that the restaurants display the recommended daily caloric intake and to provide additional nutritional information (fat, protein, salt, carbohydrates, etc.) upon request. These FDA requirements are meant to standardize menu labeling across the country. Many state and municipal laws requiring nutritional information to be posted have been enacted since 2006 - including in King County. Exemptions provided by the federal regulations include:
- Limited time offers
- Custom orders
- Test market items
- Individual alcoholic beverages
While the law allows time for the food industry to implement these regulations, a bill introduced this year (Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act of 2012) seeks to reform the rules. Proponents of this legislation hope to mitigate the cost and burden of the law as written (which according to President Obama’s own Office of Management and Budget ranks as the third most burdensome statutory constraints enacted that year). Especially vocal in this effort is the pizza industry. According to the Legislative director of Domino’s Pizza, the estimated costs of the new menus would be $5,000 per store. This is particularly frustrating to them, considering that over 90% of Domino’s customers call in (or order on-line) and would therefore never even see the wall menus.
Nutritional labeling of food is not a new issue in the United States. In 1990 the FDA required labeling on packaged foods. Studies in 2008 show that 54% of consumers reported reading food label information when purchasing and of that 49% changed their minds about a potential purchase. However, labeling itself is just one factor people consider in their food choices. In 1999 a Washington State study drew a strong correlation between a consumer’s understanding of the effect of nutrition on diseases such as cancer, diabetes and hypertension and the likelihood that food label information would be utilized.
Along with providing information for consumers, one objective of the 1990 labeling law was to encourage manufacturers to produce healthier options. In the years since, we have seen a significant increase of fat modified food in the grocery stores, but it often does not mean a caloric decrease - less fat but more sugar.
The 1990 law was enacted in response to the alarming increase in obesity in the United States. And it has continued to rise. By 2010, studies show that 68% of adults and 32% of children are either overweight or obese - a dramatic rise in two decades. So - it begs the question: if obesity rates have continued to rise - does nutritional labeling really make a difference?
An important factor to be considered in this question is that during those two decades restaurant dining also increased from 18% to 32% of daily calorie intake. Adding restaurants to the labeling requirements is in many ways a response to this change in the nation’s eating habits. As obesity rates climb, healthcare costs also climb. Healthcare reform advocates expect that implementing these reforms will save 26 billion dollars over the next 20 years. And we do have some empirical data to support that. Since Los Angeles County began requiring nutritional labeling in restaurants, Starbucks has reported a 6% calorie reduction per sales transaction. The LA County impact assessment claims that this could decrease the annual weight gain of residents by 4%.
The National Restaurant Association (the other NRA), while supporting the passage of the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act of 2012 in hopes of lessening the regulatory burden on their members, has statistics that show an increase of consumer interest in making good nutritional choices. The number 3 trend in restaurant food this year is the addition of healthful menu choices on kid’s menus (the number 1 trend is locally sourced food). 90% of adults responding to an NRA survey report that restaurants are offering more healthful items than 2 years ago. The survey also reports that 30% of all adults and 45% of adults aged 18 - 44 have gone online to find nutritional data.
Most people agree that we have the right to know exactly what we are eating. It seems that more and more people are interested in exercising that right. However, the still rising rate of obesity calls into question whether knowledge alone is enough to make a difference. In today’s age of information, the knowledge is as close as the menu in front of your face. Using that knowledge to make good choices is a little harder to legislate.