Nancy Pelosi told the public that we’d have to pass ObamaCare to find out all of the surprises Democrats had loaded into it. Since its passage, we’ve discovered a number of them, including the elimination of a tax credit that kept seniors on private medication coverage that has forced publicly-held corporations like AT&T, Caterpillar, John Deere, and Verizon to take massive charges against this year’s earnings. Earlier this week, the Associated Press discovered a new mandate, this time on chain restaurants, that is at once petty, paternalistic, and anti-growth:
A requirement tucked into the nation’s massive health care bill will make calorie counts impossible for thousands of restaurants to hide and difficult for consumers to ignore. More than 200,000 fast food and other chain restaurants will have to include calorie counts on menus, menu boards and even drive-throughs.
The new law, which applies to any restaurant with 20 or more locations, directs the Food and Drug Administration to create a new national standard for menu labeling, superseding a growing number of state and city laws. President Barack Obama was expected to sign the health care legislation Tuesday.
The idea is to make sure that customers process the calorie information as they are ordering. Many restaurants currently post nutritional information in a hallway, on a hamburger wrapper or on their Web site. The new law will make calories immediately available for most items.
“The nutrition information is right on the menu or menu board next to the name of the menu item, rather than in a pamphlet or in tiny print on a poster, so that consumers can see it when they are making ordering decisions,” says Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, who wrote the provision.
What’s wrong with getting calorie counts? Nothing, really. As a Type II diabetic myself, it helps to know calories and carbs when planning meals or medication responses. A friend of mine, Col. Joe Repya, gave me a handy wallet-sized card shortly after my diagnosis that allows me to estimate carbs and calories while at home or away, and plenty of other resources exist for the same purpose, many of them on the Internet.
In fact, many chain restaurants already provide this information to consumers on the Internet. Just to take one example: Chili’s. Their website features a prominent link to the nutritional information for their standard menu items. That’s how I know that their Oldtimer burger is 1260 calories, including the fries, the lowest-calorie burger dinner they offer. The Jalapeno Smokehouse Burger w/ Jalapeno Ranch dinner comes in at a whopping 2,130 calories.
But let’s be serious. No one who’s seriously concerned about caloric intake is going to order the gigantic Jalapeno Smokehouse Burger w/ Jalapeno Ranch dinner. Most people have the common sense to know that big burgers and whopping mounds of fries will total a huge number of calories, no matter where one buys or makes dinner. Responsible adults can navigate a menu on their own to choose the healthier options, if they want to do so, without forcing restauranteurs to conduct the kind of lab analyses necessary to give accurate calorie counts for menus.
The impact on businesses will be disproportionate to their size. Large restaurant chains with standardized menus can handle this mandate less expensively per dinner sold, thanks to the economies of scale, which is why Chili’s has the information on their national website. Chains under 20 locations will get exempt. But what about those chains with just over 20 locations?
Davanni’s, a local pizzeria-sandwich restaurant with 22 locations around the Twin Cities, will now have to comply with this mandate. A caller to my Saturday show (who wished to remain anonymous) told my radio partner Mitch Berg during a commercial break that it will cost Davanni’s approximately $200,000 to comply with the new mandate — just to start. Every menu change will require Davanni’s to have the new or modified items re-analyzed, which means that Davanni’s will probably resist adding new options for their customers. Meanwhile, larger chains with more economy of scale for such efforts such as Pizza Hut can do the tests once for all of their locations, keeping their prices lower for their customers — which they already do, thanks to consumer demand for the information.
Under those circumstances, will Davanni’s feel compelled to keep the extra three locations open, or to scale back to 19 to avoid the mandate? Even if they do keep all of their locations, that $200,000 will now get spent on something other than new jobs for teenagers and adults, and customers will pay higher prices for their food. Local and regional chains with 15-19 locations have a big economic disincentive to expand any further. I don’t know much about Davanni’s bottom line, but I’m pretty sure that even though they make some of the best pizza and hoagies in the area, they don’t have $200,000 lying around the pizza sauce to blow on lab analyses this year, or any other.
This is a fundamentally anti-growth policy — and in service of what? A federal mandate to treat adults like children, as though someone buying a pizza might be under the delusion that they’re ordering health food. That’s not even considering the question of jurisdiction on chains like Davanni’s which don’t cross state lines, and therefore shouldn’t have to answer to federal regulators at all. This is a textbook case of elitist snobbery trumping common sense, where the governing elite just assumes that Americans can’t decide for themselves what foods to eat.
When considering this, it reminded me of the classic Monty Python sketch “Crunchy Frog.” Here’s the clean version: