Connecticut senator and presidential candidate Joe Lieberman wants to require most restaurant chains to print detailed nutritional information on their menus. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro of New Haven has introduced legislation that would do just that. Although their intentions to combat obesity are noble, menu-labeling mandates are unmanageable and unenforceable. What’s worse, they would open a new door to frivolous litigation – brought courtesy of the gang of trial lawyers who want to cash in on the nation’s expanding waistline.
What’s wrong with forcing restaurants to label menus in the same way food companies label a box of cereal? Restaurant portions are not standardized and simply cannot be. Imagine chefs and waiters having to serve identically portioned slices of meatloaf and carefully calibrated dollops of mashed potatoes.
Even at fast-food restaurants, where nutritional guidelines are often available and menus stay relatively constant, fully complying with mandatory labeling rules would be impossible. The actual number of French fries you get in that medium box, or the height of a soft-serve ice cream twist, invariably differs from customer to customer.
And that is a recipe for false advertising litigation. Restaurants that miscount fat grams or employees who spread too much mayonnaise will trigger the arrival of lawyers with Soprano-like offers to settle.
Actually, it’s already happening. The Center for Science in the Public Interest – which wrote DeLauro’s bill and held a press conference with her to promote it – has a history of facilitating class-action lawsuits by “exposing mislabeled products,” as it says. After CSPI declared that a 100 percent fruit spread wasn’t 100 percent strawberries (although it was all fruit, as the label indicated), a lawyer in Wisconsin announced that he would seek class-action status on behalf of the millions of “defrauded” grocery customers who were no doubt misled by seeing the word “fruit” and mistaking it for “strawberries.”
In a similar farce, the day after publicly announcing its discovery that ice cream does indeed contain fat and sugar, CSPI teamed up with shameless lawsuit veteran John Banzhaf to warn ice cream companies that they could be sued for not sufficiently trumpeting the nutritional content.
CSPI and Banzhaf insist that their lawsuits would take a bite out of obesity. But when an ice cream company in Florida was successfully sued for mislabeling the fat and calorie count, customers had the option of receiving two free ice creams for every one that they bought. Banzhaf didn’t mention that inconvenient fact when he proclaimed the settlement a victory against the over-hyped “obesity epidemic.”
Putting aside frivolous lawsuits like the one in which Banzhaf blamed McDonald’s for an obese janitor’s weight problems, even attempting to comply with CSPI-style menu labeling legislation would mean restaurants – and therefore consumers – would have to spend a great deal of money. But never fear. DeLauro noted that the cost “won’t be too prohibitive.” Well, that’s a relief. At least the extra expense will only be moderately prohibitive.
CSPI-authored legislation would require that calories, saturated-plus trans fat and sodium be printed on menus. But there is no reason to stop there. A bill introduced earlier this year in Texas would mandate labeling for calories, the percentage of calories from fat and precise gram totals for fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, fiber, sugar, dietary fiber and protein. Finding the actual food offerings amid that sea of statistics would become a “Where’s Waldo?”-style adventure.
On the other hand, the Texas bill would make it easy to spot the warning label. “Eating Fatty Foods May Lead to Obesity” would be required – in a font size bigger than anything else on the page – on all menu items that derive more than one-third of their calories from fat.
To protect presidential candidates and policy makers with good intentions, perhaps the food cops, trial lawyers and obesity doomsayers should provide a little labeling about themselves: 34 percent junk science, 14 percent sensationalism, 29 percent threats and 23 percent greed. Warning: “Special interest with litigious agenda. Take recommendations with a grain of salt – not too much, of course.”
— Richard Berman is executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit coalition of restaurants, food companies and consumers.