Thursday, December 07, 2006

Menu Myopia

It is becoming more and more clear to a number of city council members that the Department of Health's recently passed proposal for menu labeling just doesn't make sense. As the NY Daily News reports this morning efforts are under way to persuade the council to draft a more sensible alternative to the current regulation.

The substantive issue here relates to the impractical nature of the labeling requirement for menus that offer such a wide variety of mix-and-match items, items that are also in constant flux because of changing ingredients and recipes. As the Alliance's Richard Lipsky told the News about the menu labeling, " is impossible to comply with any degree of lucidity...[and]...There's no evidence this will have an impact on consumer behavior."

What we have here is a salvo of hope; hope that somehow, in spite of the fact that there is not a scintilla of evidence to support the conclusion, posting menu labels with caloric content will (in the words of yesterday's fatuous NY Times editorial) shock ("We can already savor the astonshment") the overweight consumer into picking a healthier alternative to the double cheeseburger. We call this plan, a variant of the criminal justice efforts to have youngsters talk to hard boiled cons in the hope that they will be fearful enough to live law-abiding lives, the "Scared Skinny" plan.

Without the evidence that the proposal will have any appreciable impact on fast food customers-How can you be astonished if you simply have no idea about what any of the posted numbers mean?- what the city is doing is grossly interfering with the business operations of thousands of independently owned fast food outlets. It is the classic epitomization of Machiavelli's political advice: "It is better to appear good than to be good."

It goes without saying that the council also needs to involve itself here if only for institutional reasons. There is no way that the body should allow the mayor to legislate. Certainly whenever the council impinges on the executive functions of government the mayor is lightening quick to respond in court. The Speaker needs to demonstrate that the council is not going to simply rubber stamp the mayor's legislative initiatives when they are dressed up as regulatory proposals.

It is our view that the menu labeling idea would not stand the scrutiny of a single council hearing; that's how ludicrous it is in both intent and in implementation. What the council needs to do is to draft a more sensible and comprehensive bill that seeks to involve the other 90% of New York City's restaurants in a broad-based collaboration in the fight against childhood and adult obesity.