Monday, October 29, 2007

Weighty Pronuncement at the NY Times

As expected, the NY Times weighed in on Saturday with editorial support for the DOH's new calorie regulation. As usual, however, the paper can't resist an anti-business trope: "There’s no telling how many calories the restaurant industry has expended running away from New York’s pioneering attempt to improve the city’s health by requiring chain eateries to prominently display calorie information."

If you just paid attention to the editorial page (and ignored Ray Rivera's balanced coverage of the issue) you'd never have a clue that there just might be some legitimate reason for the industry to oppose this cockamamie measure. In the Times' Manichean world, industry is in always trying to protect its economic interests against the efforts of public spirited folks only out to protect the common good.

The real question here is whether the Times is correct with the following comment in support of the DOH rule that limited to chains with 15 or more outlets: "That should minimize the burden on businesses but still help a lot of diners make better- informed choices about what to eat." But what evidence does the Times and the Health Department proffer for this optimism?

The answer is in a survey that, as far as we know, no one has seen and almost certainly was not scientifically designed and peer-reviewed. According to this survey, the customers at Subways are being informed about calorie counts and because they are, better nutritional choices are being made: "The big chains fighting the city might take a cue from Subway. The sandwich maker is using calorie counts as a marketing tool and a way to build on its reputation as a more healthful fast-food alternative. It has voluntarily posted calories where customers can easily see them, usually on the menu board."

So according to the NY Times, all fast food companies need to become health food stores in order to protect the poor people from their own ignorance ("The bargain-priced food appeals especially to lower-income residents, who are most likely to lack access to health care that might diagnose and treat the chronic conditions linked to obesity, including diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.")-a leap that ignores customer preferences as well as ignorance about the meanings of calorie information in the first place.

The Times also ignores the fact that the DOH survey found that the customers at Subways who read the calorie information only consumed 50 less calories that their ignorant fellow customers; which is certainly minimal, and from a methodological standpoint ignores the fact that the calorie readers may have come armed with both the knowledge and the motivation that the others lacked.

All of this may just be academic, however, if the courts weigh-in on the side of the industry here. It goes to show that there is nothing that the DOH-and the Times-won't do in the name of health: even if it creates an unhealthy business climate, and impacts the productivity and employment base of neighborhood stores that are vital to the city's economy.