Doc Frieden's Fried Voodoo

This piece first appeared in the New York Post on January 23, 2008:

The city Health Department yesterday passed new regulations forcing some restaurants to post calorie content for all the food on the menu board. Though the department claims the rules will promote public health, they're really nothing but a spiteful attack on fast-food restaurants.

The regulations cover about 10% of NYC restaurants, those with more than fifteen city franchises. Yet -- though growing obesity has real, negative public-health effects -- the rules don't serve the public good. Here's why:

¢ These restaurants typically already provide ample information on their foods' calorie content. Most not only have calorie counts on their Web sites, but also charts on their walls, food wrappers and placemats.

The vast majority of the other 90% of NYC's restaurants provide no calorie info -- yet that's just fine with city public-health officials.

¢ There's no evidence the calorie info is of much use to real consumers. Surveys regularly tell us that most people don't have a clue how many calories a day are appropriate for them. So how does a menu-board warning that a cheeseburger supplies 300 calories help them avoid obesity?

¢ And, while there's zero evidence that menu-board postings combat obesity, there's solid evidence that the requirement will be a logistical nightmare for restaurants. Want mayo with that? The calorie counts will differ. Indeed, different versions of any dish will provide varied calories.

The Health Department is ordering restaurants to change how they market food and to bear the burden of the expense and confusion this entails -- all without any evidence that the move advances public health. The rules simply represent a penalty on the restaurants.

Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden last weekend revealed the mean-spiritedness here. Noting the restaurants' displeasure with the requirement, he said, "It is unfortunate that we are at the point that the restaurant industry, or parts of it, are so ashamed of what they are serving that they'd rather go to court than put [the information] where people would actually see it."

Ashamed? The restaurants in question already make full disclosure. The issue's not failure to disclose -- just resistance to pointless, cumbersome makework.

As for Frieden's flip talk of restaurants "going to court," members of the Health Department have said they'd welcome such lawsuits -- because that would open up a "discovery" process whereby, officials claim, they could find hidden documents to prove that the restaurants are using cigarette-company-like tactics to lure people (especially children) into eating unhealthy, addictive food.

The city has initiated a war against fast-food restaurants -- a war that has nothing much to do with the advancement of public health and everything to do with an attack on highly successful, profit-making businesses that sell good-tasting food most New Yorkers love.

Activists have declared fast-food restaurants the No. 1 villain in their supposed campaign against obesity. The new rules pander to that prejudice -- but are a phony "quick fix" for a far more complicated problem.

It's a real shame: The Health Department deserves a chief who's truly interested in the public good, rather than in winning headlines by jumping on foolish, pseudo-scientific fads. Let's hope the restaurants fight back -- and win.