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Hold the Fries And the District Menu Labeling

May 7, 2007

Hold the Fries And the District Menu Labeling

Sunday, May 6, 2007; B08

Should District restaurants be required to publish nutritional information next to every menu item? D.C. Council members Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) think so. They've introduced legislation to do just that. And The Post endorsed the idea in an April 2 editorial, "Counting Calories; Restaurants should make it easier."

If enacted, the measure would affect chains of 10 or more restaurants -- from fast-food joints such as McDonald's and Burger King to upscale favorites such as Morton's steakhouse and Legal Sea Foods.

Citing "obesity, diabetes and other diet-related diseases" as his motivation for introducing the measure, Mendelson described menu labeling as an "easy fix" to the District's public health woes. Drawing a comparison to the nutrition labels on packaged foods, Mendelson promised that menu labeling would enable "consumers to make informed decisions."

A reasonable requirement, right? Not really.

First, America hasn't slimmed down since the 1994 introduction of federally mandated nutrition facts on most packaged food. Instead, the nation has gotten fatter. After all, the only people who bother reading the nutrition labels are already health-conscious. Menu labels would be no different.

Second, the legislation is impractical. Whereas prepackaged foods are always the same size, restaurant portions are not standardized -- and cannot be.

As a legal matter, the bill would exempt condiments. As a practical matter, if the goal were truly to address obesity, condiments would have to be considered. According to the National Restaurant Association, a sandwich consisting of just five items can be ordered 120 different ways. Throw in five options -- such as lettuce, ketchup, mustard, onions and oil -- and now you have more than 3.6 million combinations.

Serving sizes also vary. Burger King can guarantee that its Whoppers are made with 4-ounce patties. But it can't ensure that every employee uses the same amount of mayonnaise.

For that matter, does anyone want Morton's to serve identically portioned cuts of filet mignon or Legal Sea Foods to serve pre-cut, prepackaged Chilean sea bass?

Making the situation worse, nutritional analysis is a prohibitively expensive undertaking. Once menu labeling spreads -- as it no doubt would -- the legislation would do little but drive up the cost of dining out and drive smaller restaurants out of business.

No one denies that Americans are fat and that childhood obesity is getting worse. But the regime of government-knows-best social engineering is running amok. Last December, New York became the first municipality to mandate the elimination of trans fats from restaurants, and Philadelphia soon followed suit. The District is considering a trans-fat ban, as are other major cities.

That may play well to the Restaurant Nora crowd. But what about those of us who prefer Ben's Chili Bowl?

Like chugging beer on St. Patrick's Day or smoking after sex, the choice to eat high-calorie foods is not always prudent. But government prohibition of that choice is a confiscation of freedom.

For Mendelson, Barry and their allies, however, the justification for this measure is rooted in public health expenditures. Unhealthy diets, they argue, contribute to obesity, and obesity imposes higher medical costs on everyone.

But that logic sets a dangerous precedent. So many different behaviors affect health care that eventually, in the interest of cutting costs, the government will seek to micromanage individuals' decisions. Will we fine people who sleep fewer than six hours or who don't floss?

The problem isn't that people don't know that broccoli and grilled chicken are healthier than Big Macs and ice cream; it's that they don't care.

If demand for healthful foods were higher, then restaurants would be forced to revamp their menus. The same could be said about menu labeling. If consumers were to start dining in great numbers at those restaurants that voluntarily offer nutrition facts on their menus, other restaurants would soon follow.

-- David White