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Restaurant Nutrition-Labeling Regulations Proposed In Health Care Bills

One of the frustrations we have with the legislative process is the lack of transparency. Few laws are so urgent that they must be passed before anyone has had the time to read them. Just as a matter of process, we would support a law prohibiting a congressional vote on any legislation that has not been posted on the internet, with its final language, for at least ten business days. Exceptions could be made in the event of war or similar situations.

For example, people are still combing through the health care legislation to figure out what is in there. For example, did you know that both the House and Senate bills contain almost identical proposals to regulate restaurants?

We think we were the first to publish anything about this. We wrote a piece for National Review Online, which they called When Did Restaurant Regulation Creep into the Health Care Bill?:

…it turns out that both bills also extend the nanny state into restaurants and supermarket-deli operations.

The relevant section is titled “Nutrition Labeling of Standard Menu Items at Chain Restaurants,” and the gist is that restaurants and retailers that serve prepared foods will have to display on the menu a “nutrient content disclosure statement,” which will list the calories of each item and a “succinct statement concerning suggested daily caloric intake” designed “to enable the public to understand, in the context of a total daily diet, the significance of the caloric information that is provided on the menu.” The information must also be available in writing and there must be signage advising that it is available.

Restaurants’ daily specials are exempted, but drive-through windows are not. Nor are vending-machine operators. The regulation applies to any outlet with at least twenty stores — including not just centrally owned and operated companies, but also franchises.

…hardly anyone important in the food business is opposing the regulation. Similar legislation, known as the LEAN Act, was endorsed by a who’s who of the restaurant industry, including the National Restaurant Association (NRA). Partly this is because most big fast-food chains publish this info anyway, partly because the industry wants to preempt state and local standards with a federal one and, partly because the NRA is desperately trying to avoid having restaurants blamed for national obesity issues.

The specific problem is that there is not the slightest scintilla of evidence that making such information available changes behavior. California has health warnings so ubiquitous that everyone seems to ignore them. The government mandated that private companies make substantial expenditures to make sure that fresh foods have country-of-origin labeling on them. This was done at the behest of U.S. producers who thought such labeling would swing business to them. Yet there is no evidence that consumers have changed purchasing habits.

Because the cost of executing this new nutritional-labeling requirement is paid by the private sector, it doesn’t show up when the Congressional Budget Office scores the cost of the bill — but a cost it is. Since we have no reason to think there is any effect to this new labeling requirement, we can presume that lots of money will wind up being spent with little or no effect.

The substance of this requirement disturbs us because we don’t like to do things because they make us feel good. We think expecting evidence of efficacy in public policy discussions is reasonable.

But what really disturbs us is that there has been no public policy discussion. The item gets sunk in an enormous bill in the dark of night without discussion or debate. We happened to catch this item — what else is in there that nobody ever heard of?

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