EDITORIAL: Bill would give businesses more flexibility to deal with the menu police

After being delayed several times, new menu-labeling rules from the Food and Drug Administration are expected to be implemented in May to require many chain restaurants, grocers, vending machine owners, theater owners and others to publicly post total average calorie information for most menu items.

This is an attempt by Nanny Staters to shame people into changing their eating habits. But as Baylen Linnekin of Reason.com points out, these types of mandates rarely have the desired effect.

Congress mandated the menu-labeling rules in 2010 as part of Obamacare. Supporters say they are needed to give Americans more information so they can make better food choices. More information is fine — although most of this data is already available online or from other sources.

The Trump administration late last year telegraphed that it would follow through on imposing the new regulations. But earlier this month, the House passed a measure — the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act — that would again delay the rules while giving chain restaurants and pizza parlors, where ingredient combinations can run into the thousands, more flexibility in carrying out the mandate.

This makes eminent sense. As the Wall Street Journal noted, “These rules carry real costs, and sanity from Congress could move millions of compliance dollars back into more productive uses.” Indeed, without more clarity, it’s only a matter of time before the trial lawyers see a brand new avenue for business shakedowns.

Ultimately, however, it’s highly doubtful the “guidance” will prompt people to eat more healthful fare. As Mr. Linnekin surmises, food choices are an “intensely personal” matter for the vast majority of people — a fact that menu-labeling initiatives fail to consider.

Mr. Linnekin, a law professor at George Mason University, cites a 2016 Duke study which found when low-income consumers have more disposable income, they tend to buy bigger quantities of the foods they already like, rather than spending the additional money on healthier foods.

Heavy-handed restrictions on individual choice don’t help, either. As The New York Times recently detailed, Chile tried to fight obesity by taxing sugar, banning the marketing of foods to children, removing junk food from schools and implementing mandatory nutrition warnings. None of the actions contributed to a drop in obesity rates.

Things are even worse in America, Mr. Linnekin notes. Despite eight years of policy initiatives aimed at encouraging children eat their fruits and vegetables — many promoted by then-first lady Michelle Obama — the nation’s obesity rates have continued to rise.

Ultimately, it’s up to individuals to make their own decisions about what they eat. No lawmaker or piece of legislation should usurp that freedom. But if Congress insists on acting as the menu police, the House bill at least offers a reasonable combination of increased latitude for small businesses and more information for consumers.

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