In a hearing on Capitol Hill last week, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers challenged the effectiveness of food labeling requirements, given that we have experienced a couple of decades of menu labels with no drop in obesity levels.
Some members took a moment to mock the new labeling requirements as ineffective at really helping Americans make decisions about how to be healthy as well as big government overreach:
“We still have a problem with obesity in our country," Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas) said. “We’re not going to stop people from eating what they want to. I’m going to go to Dominos or Dunkin’ or get enchiladas in Texas at one of our convenience stores."
Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) said this is an example of a “nanny state.”
"I don’t think I’ve ever in my life read a menu label,” Shimkus said. "I don’t think I’ve ever looked for calorie numbers on anything that I’ve consumed. And I bet that I’m in the majority of Americans."
The lawmakers suggested there may be more effective ways to help people lose weight and stay healthy.
"In other words, if what you do is sit in front of your TV and eat our food and that’s all you do, you will get fat. I don’t care what restaurant it is,” said Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.). "We’re not giving Americans the information: ‘Get off your butt, and move.’ ”
Under debate is legislation that would scale back new labeling requirements mandated under Obamacare. The bill would exempt most non-restaurant chains such as grocery stores, convenience stores, gas stations, movie theaters, amusement parks, and other businesses that sell “restaurant-like” food from a disclosing calorie content of the food they sell – a new provision under ObamaCare.
Almost three dozen other senators demanded that the FDA delay the rules until after next year’s presidential elections, giving the next chief in command a chance to block the rule altogether. Somehow, I doubt that recommendation went over well at the FDA.
Does calorie disclosure even work? They’ve certainly failed to eliminate obesity among adults and children. More than two-thirds of American adults may be obese or overweight. The chronic illnesses that follow spike healthcare costs and lead to a drain on public resources as many ill patients turn to the government for help.
Instead of recognizing that calorie labels or postings don’t work, policymakers have responded with even more aggressive and intrusive measures such as soda and fast-food bans. These replace consumer decision-making with government fiat. Instead allowing me to make decisions for myself and my family based on information, a regulator in Washington determines for me what I should or should not eat and intercepts what they deem as unhealthy options from even getting in from of my eyes. It’s a paternalistic approach that belittles our intelligence.
Mercatus Fellow Sherzod Abdukadirov points out how badly designed most of these labels are anyway. In many cases, labels are confusing and difficult to understand. If you are elderly or busy, you just might not find them helpful. The labels are made by health eggheads for honest eggs, and in the process the consumer is left out of the equation. Abdukadirov writes:
Studies evaluating the nutrition label reveal that it is poorly designed. Proper use of the nutrition label requires considerable nutrition knowledge and extensive mental effort at the time of purchase, which time-pressed consumers at the grocery store do not have. In many cases, consumers do not use the nutrition label because they find it difficult to understand and use in purchasing decisions. Moreover, the label does not account for the difficulties that less-educated or elderly consumers could have interpreting the label. The label is essentially designed by the health experts for the health experts and therefore fails most consumers.
The federal government recognizes the issues with the nutrition label's design. In a recent report, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) examined front-of-pack nutrition facts panel (NFP) labels as a way to address the information overload and confusing design of the nutrition label. Based on its analysis, the IOM recommended that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) produce a "simple, standard symbol translating information from the NFP on each product into a quickly and easily grasped health meaning, making healthier options unmistakable." The IOM found that a simple symbol would be easily
The federal government recognizes the issues with the nutrition label's design. In a recent report, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) examined front-of-pack nutrition facts panel (NFP) labels as a way to address the information overload and confusing design of the nutrition label. Based on its analysis, the IOM recommended that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) produce a "simple, standard symbol translating information from the NFP on each product into a quickly and easily grasped health meaning, making healthier options unmistakable." The IOM found that a simple symbol would be easily understood by consumers at different literacy levels and would act as a cue to opt for healthier choices.
More generally, the Office of Management and Budget instructed the federal agencies to consider how and when consumers would use the disclosed information to inform their decision-making. To be useful, the information should not be merely available, but also accessible, usable and salient.
Despite the FDA's awareness of the label's problems, its proposed regulation to overhaul the nutrition label fails to improve its design. The proposed label marginally improves readability by increasing white space and calorie count font size. But it still requires consumers to have considerable nutrition knowledge and motivation.
We have a better idea than merely improving the labels: Let’s get Washington out of our plates and our shopping carts. Information is the most powerful tool in consumer decision-making, but so far the efforts of regulators and policymakers have come up short. More calorie disclosure mandates won’t help us if we don’t understand how to make decisions based upon that information or don’t also understand the other factors that go into good health like exercise. It just becomes noise and distractions to consumers at great expensive for businesses.