Friday, March 02, 2007

Unhealthy Policy Protest

The furor over the Board of Health's requirement that fast food restaurants post calorie information was stepped up another notch when two chains pulled some of their nutritional information off of their web sites or from their food outlets. As the NY Times reports this morning, at least another six chains may have followed suit, but the paper hesitated to name them because spokesman couldn't be reached.

As we have already remarked this action was predictable since the Board's rule will have some serious business impacts on the fast food industry, impacts that the Board had no interest in exploring when it decided to implement the calorie rule. That being said, it is also important to point out that most of the major chains did not take this same kind of drastic measure even though they might have been tempted to send a message to the meddlesome Department of Health that it has no business, or competency, legislating.

What is especially perverse is the response of Commissioner Frieden to the chains' actions. He wondered whether the restaurants who resisted were "ashamed" of posting. The perversity here is that, Wendy's at least, is still posting extensive nutritional information at store level and is clearly willing to continue to provide all kinds of information to its customers; just not in the rigid and unhelpful way that the Board has required. As Chairman Rivera, the sponsor of the more reasonable alternative, points out, "We should be working with the industry that's already been voluntarily providing information, not working against it."

What is being lost somewhat in the controversy is the question of whether the Board of Health ruling makes any sense from even a health perspective. Certainly the fact that the Board seems to have cribbed the entire proposal from a questionable advocacy group with a historical anti-business bias does little to inspire confidence that the proposal has been properly vetted.

This group, the self-described Center for Science in the Public Interest, has long targeted the fast food industry and certainly has little care that the industry employs tens of thousands of workers in this city, or that their pet proposal may increase the cost of doing business here. The group's nutrition director told the NY Sun that this calorie posting plan, a plan with no consensual support in the research literature is "one of the strongest obesity prevention policies passed in any city or state."

My God, we don't even have good data to show that packaged food labeling, in place for over a decade, has any positive impact on obesity-an observation given heightened salience since the obesity epidemic in this country is basically coterminous with the period in which that labeling requirement was put into effect. This doesn't stop the fat heads at CSPI, however, since their goal is to cripple the fast food industry with regulations first, and lawsuits second. The City Council should know better and resist this mesasure by supporting the Rivera bill.