by Hannah Jackman, Staff Writer
Last night my friend Becky and I went to dinner at California Pizza Kitchen. As I perused the menu, I noticed something different — at the end of every dish description on the menu was a little notation indicating the number of calories in the menu item. “Oh, my God, Beck!” I exclaimed. “Did you see this?” We were appalled to find that most of the dishes on the menu were between 1000-1600 calories. I begrudgingly settled on a salad for 420 calories. I ate it with some disappointment. I had really wanted the pasta. All 1200 calories of it.
So, I wondered to myself, is this a “good” law? I was better informed as a consumer and was able to make a healthier choice (even if the other people at the tables around us appeared to still be ordering whatever they wanted). It could create an incentive for restaurants to provide healthier menu items to attract (or regain) health-conscious customers — the salad I chose was a new menu item — no doubt an offering by CPK to the patrons shell-shocked by the high-calorie faire. This is better for all of us… if the full consequences of our decisions are staring us in the face, we are more likely to make better decisions, right?
However, at best, I think the law is unnecessary. Many businesses have already taken it upon themselves to provide easily accessible nutrition information on the internet and in-store, most notably places like McDonalds and Starbucks. As a consumer, you make a choice: Are you more likely to patronize a place where you know what you’re putting in your body? Or do you want what you want and don’t care about the calorie content? These are choices you can make as a consumer — and the business benefits or suffers based upon the choices YOU make. McDonalds and Starbucks likely did a cost-benefit analysis, coming under media and subsequently public pressure for the unhealthfulness of their products, and decided to put the information out there and make it easily accessible to consumers. [I carry around a little book my doctor gave me (but can also easily be found in bookstores for a few bucks) that tells me the calories and fat in most foods and about fifty pages worth of popular restaurants. For people to pretend that there haven’t been options out there if you were looking for them is simply not true.] In other words, the market was already taking care of it. Businesses adjust to consumer demand or perish. Had CPK been losing business because it the perceived unhealthfulness of their food, they would have followed suit with McDonalds and Starbucks. The law is patronizing. It says, YOU don’t know what’s best for you, that YOU are not intelligent enough to make smart choices, either in the restaurant you choose to eat at or the menu item you choose (I knew full well stepping into that restaurant that lettuce is probably a better choice than a pile of white pasta tossed in oil), and moreover, that you should always have to be aware of and watch what you’re eating — when I go to In-N-Out, I know what I’m doing, and frankly, I don’t want to be reminded just what my late-night frequently post-alcohol consumption fast-food trip is costing me.
The law is, at worst, harmfully invasive, both in principle and in practice. An entrepreneur risks his or her own capital when opening a (restaurant) business, and thus he must bear the consequences of how he or she runs his business. It should therefore be up to him or her whether or not they choose to divulge nutrition information or WHERE they divulge it. (This is an important distinction — if, for instance, a restaurant chooses to post nutrition information online, that means only the people who really give a damn are going to go looking for it, and the others simply go to the restaurants that sound good to them order as they well please.) It is too soon to tell, but what if the new law hurts the restaurant business? This is the law of unintended consequences: because of a seemingly “good” thing, restaurants may lose money, hurting stockholders (which includes both fat cats and average Joes) and causing them to close locations and cut jobs when our economy needs as much circulating capital and job creation as possible. Think regulation doesn’t hurt business? Think again. Texas has created more jobs recently than any other state. Why? It drastically cut the number of permits needed to start a business. Would a restaurateur thinking about opening a greasy burger joint like Tommy’s in LA perhaps think twice if he knew he would have customers staring down at big numbers every time they ordered a chili cheeseburger? They might just think it would be better to take their business out of state. Somewhere like… Texas, perhaps.