Show Me the Labels!

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It’s been four years since the passage of the national menu labeling law. Where are the labels?

The law calls for the FDA to mandate calorie labels at “restaurants and similar retail food establishments with 20 or more locations.”
It seems straightforward enough. At the time of its passage the 
FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg even hailed its simplicity and ease of implementation. But four years later the agency is still tinkering with the rules and dithering about the date by which restaurants must comply.

Lobbyists for the food service industry dedicated themselves to obstructing the law by nitpicking the language of a single phrase restaurants and similar retail food establishments with 20 or more locations.”
The bowling alley lobby (who knew?) successfully argued for an exclusion by focusing on the phrase “retail food establishment.” They can serve a full menu but they claim to be in the entertainment business. Ditto for the movie theater operators’ lobby, and places like Chuck E. Cheese and Dave and Busters. The pizza chains concede that they’re in the retail food business, but establishments? Their lobbyists argue for an exclusion from onsite menu labeling because so much of the business is takeout and delivery. The true establishment, they claim, is the customer’s home. Retailers like Target, Costco, and BJ’s want to wriggle out of compliance because of the verbiage “20 or more locations.” The retailers themselves have the requisite number of locations, but the in-store restaurants are often independent, and operated by small business owners.
Convenience stores, supermarkets, vending machine operators, and airlines have all found their own loopholes in the language.

In the meantime, it’s business as usual at the nation’s chain restaurants.
Earlier this week, the nutrition watchdogs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest announced the 2014 Xtreme Eating Awards—its annual survey of chain restaurants’ latest permutations of fat, calories, salt, and sugar. A few years ago, a 1,500 calorie entrée would elicit gasps from the judges; this year every single nominee topped 2,000 calories and a handful weighed in at more than 3,000. The ultimate ‘winner’ came from the perennial overachiever The Cheesecake Factory whose Bruléed French Toast is a gut-busting plate of sugar, butter, syrup, and custard-soaked bread clocking in with a full day’s worth of sodium, 3 days’ worth of sugar, and enough saturated fat to carry its eater through an entire workweek. It’s the rare dish where the side of bacon is the healthiest item on the plate.

It’s not like it’s named The Lo-Fat Cottage Cheese Factory.
Caveat emptor, right? No one goes there expecting health food. You could argue that chains like The Cheesecake Factory are just giving us what we want, and we’re a willing public with a taste for fats.

But is this really what we want?
Restaurants aren’t just delivering amped-up comfort food; they’re pushing ever harder at the boundaries of our taste and serving the results in eye-popping portions. Look at the dish that appears on The Cheescake Factory menu as Bow-Tie Pasta, Chicken, Mushrooms, Tomato, Pancetta, Peas and Caramelized Onions in a Roasted Garlic-Parmesan Cream Sauce. It sounds hearty, soothing, even indulgent with a bit of creamy garlic sauce, but you’d never guess that you’d have to eat five entrée-sized boxes of Stouffer’s frozen Classics Chicken Fettuccini Alfredo- each topped with a pat of butter!-to achieve the calorie and saturated fat equivalent. We shouldn’t have to guess.

This is a broken social contract. 
The Cheesecake Factory has every right to pile on the salt, fat, and sugar, and nobody is twisting our arms to eat there. But the abysmal nutritional standards and gargantuan portions are served up in the midst of America’s ever-worsening obesity crisis, and the food service industry is fighting tooth and nail to obstruct the stalled federal menu-labeling mandate. You can say that it’s beyond the scope of corporate responsibility to provide a solution to society’s ills, but corporate citizenship be damned; this is unconscionable.

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