Thursday, October 25, 2007

High Caloric

As the NY Times (and the NY Daily News as well) is reporting this morning, the Department of Health has returned with a menu labeling rule that it believes will pass court scrutiny; its previous rule was struck down last month. It appears to us, however, that the rule will also be subjected to a court challenge and Judge Richard Howell's original decision, which was creative in the extreme, will be further tested.

All of which begs the question of the efficacy of what the DOH is doing here. According to today's story, Health Commissioner Frieden is convinced that the postings will have a beneficial effect: “The big picture is that New Yorkers don’t have access to calorie information,” said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the city’s health commissioner. “They overwhelmingly want it. Not everyone will use it, but many people will, and when they use it, it changes what they order, and that should reduce obesity and, with it, diabetes.”

That statement is, let's put it politely, lacking in empirical foundation that would give the commissioner any backing for the categorical surety expressed. New Yorkers "overwhelmingly" want to have calories posted in the manner that the Department envisions? And the rest of his statement is equally open to question since there is little scientific research that would bolster the commissioner's bold assertions.

In fact, what little research that has been done in this area raises more questions than it answers. We were interested in the revelation in this morning's Times story about some kind of survey done by the DOH last spring. Here's what it allegedly found: A health department survey this spring found that only 3 percent of customers at Domino’s, Papa John’s, Taco Bell and other popular restaurants saw the calorie information provided by those chains on their Web sites or other locations before ordering. By contrast, about 31 percent of Subway customers reported seeing the calorie information, which was posted prominently next to the cash register at the time of the survey. Those who said they did consumed about 634 calories, about 50 calories less than those who did not, the study found.

Now do we really have to point out just how silly-and thoroughly unscientific-all of this sounds? Aside from the fact that the Subway postings were not done in total conformance to the DOH formula, it is impossible to draw any conclusions from a comparison between Subway customers and, let's say McDonald's customers, without having a little bit of a priori knowledge of what the disparate customer bases are bringing with them in the form of nutritional information.

Subway, which has always emphasized its nutritional appeal, and markets its restaurants on this basis, may well be attracting customers with both the knowledge and inclination to utilize calorie information-wherever it's posted. And the fact that those who claimed that they saw the calorie info supposedly consumed "50 calories less" than those who didn't, proves, well, absolutely nothing because we simply have no idea whether this result, although correlated, has any degree of causal relationship. The less consuming calorie customer may only have been predetermined by the prior inclination and knowledge we've mentioned.

Or not. After all, what does a 50 calorie difference mean? If the DOH's own survey found that the readers of calorie posts consumed only 50 calories less than those who did not, it would seem to us to be an indication of the worthlessness of the entire scheme. We're also wondering if the DOH survey plumbed the depth of customer knowledge about calories and their importance? Our suspicion is that it didn't, but if it did the levels of ignorance found would have been astounding-a further indication of the silliness of the entire effort.

Which underscores what we have been saying all along: this is all just an elaborate, and expensive social science experiment that is, at best, nothing but a shot in the dark-done by folks who haven't been in a fast food restaurant in years, if ever. These chains are a vital cog in the economic foundation of the city's neighborhoods, and are owned and operated by many minority entrepreneurs. The DOH experiment, dubious at best, is being done at the expense of neighborhood small businesses, firms that will be forced to spend millions in compliance costs in order to help the good doctor generate his data.