Monday, January 29, 2007

Winning Hearts and Stomachs

The public health community, aided and abetted by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and an army of tort lawyers, doesn't really like the fast food industry. They see the McDonalds, Burger Kings, Wendys and KFCs as part of an evil unhealthy empire-and there is no question that they look down on the customers of these food outlets. They see the customers as the unenlightened and unwashed, dim bulbs badly in need of the assistance of their betters.

This underlying disdain and antipathy is what is behind the effort to force the fast food chains to post calorie labels on all of their menu and menu boards, an idea that could only be conceived by folks who never have owned a business, having spent their entire lives in the pursuit of a health nirvana for the less well-informed among us. They are part of a mindset that believes, just as the philosopher Rousseau did, that sometimes you just have to "force people to be free."

Which is why it is so refreshing to read the piece in today's Washington Post by Sebastian Mallaby. Mallaby goes into an in-depth evaluation of the response of McDonalds to a business downturn in 2002: "Besieged by its critics, the company suffered its first financial loss in 2002, and for a moment its hegemony seemed fragile. But then the empire struck back. After 44 consecutive months of sales growth McDonalds serves 6 million more customers a day than it did four years ago."

Why is this so? It did so because, unlike government that tends to reward failure, it responded swiftly to its critics and revamped its operations. And the company also did something that reflects the fact that it listens to its customers, especially when it comes to health; "It has listened to its health critics and adapted: it sold 304 million pounds of mixed greens in 2005, and the U.S. operation claims to be the nation's largest purchaser of apples."

And the company, just like most of its fast food cousins, provides extensive nutritional information to its customers. It is in this context that the silliness (if not so counterproductive and expensive) of the NYC DOH edict on menu labeling needs to be understood. Instead of the creative response of the private sector we are treated to the one size fits all dictum of the health commissars-taking their marching orders from those enemies of free enterprise (called capitalism in those quarters) at the CSPI.

Once again, the city's response to the obesity epidemic is to embark on a course that will do nothing to change the behavior of New Yorkers but will severely impact on the ability of the industry to be as productive as it can be. Make no mistake about it, the Department's proposal will cost independent franchise owners in the city millions of dollars in compliance costs (something that wasn't even a cost-benefit factor for the department in its deliberation).

Think about this: If these costs force local outlets to lay off one employee apiece, or not hire a youngster from the community because of the need to constantly pay for menu changes as new offerings are brought to the public, than the DOH initiative will have laid off thousands of workers. And for what?

For an unproven health scheme for which there is no research to demonstrate its potential efficacy? This is the kind of irresponsibility that we have come to expect from the self-proclaimed public interest anti-capitalists, but not from a government agency that is trusted to steward the health of millions of New Yorkers.