Friday, March 30, 2007

And the Survey Says...

The NY Sun and the NY Times are both reporting today that the DOH has started to do a survey of what people are eating at randomly selected fast food outlets in the city. In order to obtain this information the department is giving free Metro Cards in exchange for customer receipts.

So I guess the sleuths over at the Health Department basically haven't a clue whether or not their regulation on calorie posting will lead to diners making healthier eating choices. As its spokeswoman told the Sun, "Because we are breaking new ground with this initiative, it is crucial that we evaluate our efforts so we can assess their impact."

I'm sure that they hope to find a correlation, but to force local businesses to make millions of dollars of changes (one estimate puts the aggregate number at $46,000,000) to their menu boards and menus without any real solid research evidence to suggest the efficacy of the rule change, is simply irresponsible. It amounts to a $46 million, self-evaluated, social experiment

It's not anything that the FDA would do before approving something as drastic as calorie posting. The federal agency would do exhaustive fact-finding, conduct independent, peer-reviewed research, and would initiate an extensive comment period to get feedback from all of the affected parties.

The NYC DOH didn't do any of this, a waste of time no doubt when you are imbued with the righteousness of the cause of health. The agency undoubtedly believes, just like their brothers and sisters in solidarity over at CSPI, the all of this due diligence is a waste of time, and gives The Industry too much time to use their resources to influence the process.

Indeed, an open review period is not anything that the Stalanistas would ever willingly allow for. The serious question we do have, however, is why the council would simply go along with this. So far we haven't seen any willingness on the part of leadership to subject the DOH rule to the sunlight disinfectant that it surely could use.

Which brings us to this so-called study of the department. The Times reports that, "A department spokeswoman said that the survey was scientifically, but industry representatives yesterday questioned its legitimacy." As Tom Foulkes of NRA told the paper; "'s certainly not going to accurately depict if the program is working."

You know it's been quite some time since we took a doctoral research methods course, but one thing we know for certain. Surveying only those customers willing to participate, for what amounts to basically a bribe, will never pass any scientific smell test. To conduct this kind of test in-house without any attempt to give the research over to independent analysts, is beyond self-serving. It approaches the bad faith dishonesty that we saw when tobacco companies were purchasing scientists in an attempt to downplay the harmful effects of smoking.

It is time for the council to step up and do the kind of oversight that needs to be done here if a system of checks and balances is to have any real meaning. DOH needs to be called in and the entire survey instrument needs to be laid bare for independent evaluation. Once this is done, the entire effort needs to be turned over to folks who have no vested interest in the results.