Calorie counting is getting out of control

This year’s health care reform bill included a measure to require chain restaurants and vending machines to post calorie information for the food they sell, taking up space on menus and menu boards. The focus of the debate was on fast food restaurants and larger chains, but as the FDA implements the new regulations, it’s considering applying them to lots of other businesses:

Regulators' appetite for calorie counts is about to extend beyond restaurants to thousands of other places that offer food, including airplanes, movie theaters and convenience stores. […]

In preliminary guidelines released last week, the Food and Drug Administration said the scope of the law stretches beyond restaurants to encompass airlines, trains, grocery-store food courts, movie theaters and convenience stores that qualify as chains. Within grocery stores, the agency said, it is considering including salad bars, store bakeries, pizza bars and delicatessens. Stadiums aren't listed since they aren't chains.

It’s not clear how the law would work in some of these places. Convenience stores often don’t have menus and consumers determine portions at a salad bar, making it hard to say how the information can be usefully presented.

Perhaps the hassle and expense of complying with the law would be worthwhile if it led to better health outcomes. However the evidence that it will affect consumer behavior is mixed at best. A Stanford study frequently cited by labeling advocates found that Starbucks consumers reduced their consumption by 6% after New York City’s labeling law took effect, but it roughly estimates that in the long-run the law may result in only a 1% drop in body weight. And if consumers do alter their behavior at the point of sale, they may compensate by eating more at other times.

The alternative to mandatory labeling is not complete consumer ignorance. Many chains already publish calorie information online and in print. They also highlight healthier options on their menus, bringing them to the attention of interested diners. This is not a perfect market, but there’s certainly been a market response to Americans’ desire to watch their weight. It’s far from clear that the benefits of putting calorie information for all items on all menus will outweigh the costs of discovering and publishing them.

Large chains initially opposed this law but understandably came to prefer it to the possibility of dealing with a patchwork of regulations across the country. Unfortunately, it looks like the effect of their reversal will be that lots of other businesses are forced into compliance too. It would have been better to refrain from making this a federal issue until the empirical results from local jurisdictions could be fully evaluated.

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