Sunday, February 04, 2007

Truth in Menu Labeling

We were forwarded, by the inimitable Matt Lipsky, a notice of a new book, written by Michele Simon, titled Appetite for Profit: How the food industry undermines our health and how to fight back. Ms. Simon was on the campus of Duke University for a seminar at the law school on health and public policy.

Simon heads a group called Center for Informed Food Choices that, in spite of its felicitous title, is an entity that has little good to say about this country's food industry, accusing it of all kinds of perfidy and seeing it as the major cause of the country's obesity epidemic. The CIFC follows in the anti-business tradition of Center for Science in the Public Interest and finds that any attempt by food businesses to defend their interests must, ipso fact, be seen as an attack on the public good.

Nowhere do we see from the likes of Simon or CSPI's Michael Jacobson any awareness that the food industry not only employs millions of Americans, but through its innovations provides access to healthy food at reasonable prices. Their criticisms, particularly of the fast food restaurants, is dripping with venom and class anatgonism. Tofu and arugula or bust is the motto of these elitists.

We can see some of this hostility and absence of reasoned arguments in Simon's discussion of menu labeling. In her view the McDonald's opposition to menu labeling is, quoting a political sponsor of a bill that was defeated in Maine, "Because they're worried that it will work...That people would change their behavior based on the information."

What a Kroc! Food labeling hasn't led to any diminution of profits for food manufacturers who are content to find innovative ways to market new products for changing customer tastes. But this view underscores the innate hostility of the food zealots to the food business. They are simply unwilling to evaluate the merits of their proposal from any unbiased cost benefit standpoint.

This bias is highlighted by Simon's discussion of the policy of the Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain. The company had initially changed its entire menu to supply its customers with extensive nutritional information. "But just a few short months later, the company rescinded the policy for reasons that are unclear. Depending on who you ask, it was either too expensive to maintain or sales of the company's unhealthy items fell; in other words it worked."

Yes, depending on who you ask. If you ask the company it will tell you that the constantly shifting menu items and changing ingredients made it impossible to continue to provide this nutrition information without constantly altering its menu, a costly procedure that didn't make sense. But to the advocates, without offering any proof whatsoever, this about face came about because of the fact that the menu labeling worked!

To which Simon concludes, in her typically anti-business ranting fashion, "That's why laws are needed to require companies to change their practices." In her mind it is a zero-sum game between business profits and the public health. Missing from her "analysis" is any clearheaded discussion of the efficacy of the menu labeling policy. In her mind the fact that the fast food companies oppose the policy is sufficient enough reason to conclude that it is in the public interest.

And the only reason the measure hasn't passed in any legislature is due to the malevolent opposition of the National Restaurant Association. Which is precisely why the CSPUI had to convince the NYC DOH to introduce the policy by regulation. In the light of day, and after clear-cut evaluation by legislature after legislature, this policy has been found to make no sense. The advocates, however, know best what's good for Americans and if they have to end-run the legislative process, well, its in the public interest, isn't it?