Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Bad Menu, part II

Perhaps I was a bit over the top and not quite so clear in my last post. If a restaurant- particularly a fast food restaurant with extremely standardized portion sizing- wants to provide nutritional information to their consumers, then good for them. My big problem is the push- as in the case of New York city- to require large chain restaurants to provide this information to consumers.

It's not as much about public health as it is about corporate control. As is the case in New York, proposals for restaurants to provide nutritional information focus on the big chains. Small mom and pop joints, local diners and the like, are all left out, as well they should be. The failure rate of such small enterprises is fairly high to begin with, and requiring literally tens of thousands of dollars in nutritional testing would put virtually all of them out of business. The big boys can afford it, so government has no problem sticking them with the bill. But if this really is all about health, then why should anyone be exempted? It's disingenuous to say that these sorts of policies are needed in the name of public health, yet exempt half of the restaurants out there. As I said, this is just as much about controlling big corporations as it is public health.

The essence of my arguments from the last post still stand- the more of a human touch there is the cooking and preparation of food, the less accuracy there will be in standardized nutritional information. And this is a real concern from a public health perspective. It's one thing for a company to make a decision to provide nutritional information and be legally bound by that decision and the information they provide. But it's quite another to mandate the disclosure of that information based solely on corporate status without looking at all to the nature of the food being served.

Incorrect information would seem to be more of problem in terms of public health than no information at all. Take for example, something as simple as cheese fries at any one of the chain casual dining restaurants. (I chose cheese fries because of the likely lack of any precise measuring- I've had a lot of cheese fries in my day and it seems to me that the amount of fries and the amount of cheese can vary from trip to trip- Not to mention the problem of that little lump of sour cream and the ranch dipping sauce- Does the nutritional information include all of that?) Absent specific information, customers concerned with calories and the like can make a reasoned decision- cheese fries are probably not all that good for you. With specific information, people may try and make more specific decisions. Cheese fries may somehow be justified now that they're listed at 800 calories and you're only planning on having half. Unfortunately, the cook today has much bigger hands than the cook the other day, so today's slightly larger heaping of french fries with two extra large handfuls of melted cheese actually comes out to 1300 calories, or 650 when you have half. Personally I don't think any of it is such a big deal, but for the people that do, imprecise information can lead to decisions that may have been avoided in the first place if there was merely an absence of information. All the laws in the world can't change the fact that there are going to be problems in the world with standardized nutritional information on some products. Maybe the double cheeseburger at McDonalds is easy, but that doesn't mean Ruby Tuesday's cheese fries are as simple.


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