Readers outside the New York City area might not know about the city’s relatively new regulation, under enforcement for about seven months now, that requires most chain restaurants to display calorie counts on their menus. Though the law’s been controversial and under appeal, its enforcement means that places like McDonald’s and Starbucks — within the New York City limits — now have to tell you the calorie count, along with the price, of Big Macs, eggs McMuffin, bagels, scones, and slabs of banana bread.
One appeal, a major one, has just been settled:
In a victory for New York City’s campaign against obesity, a federal appellate court on Tuesday rejected the New York State Restaurant Association’s challenge to the city’s 2007 regulation requiring most major fast-food and chain restaurants to prominently display calorie information on their menus.
Enforcement of the rule began in July 2008, with the appeal continuing. But the ruling on Tuesday, by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, eliminates, for now, lingering uncertainty over the rule.
“This is good news for everyone,” said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the city’s health commissioner. “Nearly all chain restaurants are now complying with the law. Consumers are learning more about the food before they order, and the market for healthier alternatives is growing. We applaud the court for its decision, and we thank the restaurant industry for living by the rules.”
My view, as a resident of Westchester County, who usually drops in at Starbucks, Borders, and other cafés outside the city, is that this is an excellent law that makes a real difference... and I see why the restaurants don’t like it.
You see, out here in the blissfully ignorant suburbs, I’m happy to order my coffee with a side of scone. Because a “scone” isn’t like, say, a cookie or a piece of cake. Those are loaded with sugar and fat, and all; but a scone is a healthier alternative. And it dunks nicely into that cup of Joe.
And then, of a weekend, I sometimes wander into Metropolis to go to an art museum, say, or an event sponsored by the New York City Skeptics. When I stop for a coffee then, there are two numbers under that scone, and it’s hard to tell, at first, which one is the price and which the fat+carb index. The latter wins, at well over 450; the price is still less than that.
Here’s the thing: when I see that, when I look at that number, I don’t order the scone. I realize that I don’t want to use around ¼ of my calories for the day that way. And it’s not that I count my calories with any rigour; I don’t. It’s that the number whacks some sense into my head. It makes me realize that getting that scone — or, at various other places, the piece of cheesecake or the tiramisu — is stupid and unnecessary.
And, consequently, it encourages these places to have smaller alternatives. In place of something that could feed the entire tribe wandering through the Sinai, I can get a smaller morsel, something where the cents and the calories are each around, say, 100.
The law works. It doesn’t tell me what I can’t have. It just tells me what I need to know to decide what I really want.