Menus and Calories in New York (2008 May)

by Barry A. Liebling

Officials in New York City are determined to take action against what they believe is an epidemic of obesity. They have enacted a new law that requires restaurants with at least 15 locations nationwide – mostly fast-food concerns – to display prominently the calories of each item they sell. Government officials maintain that customers do not realize how fattening the foods they buy really are. If dining establishments are compelled to exhibit calorie information on the menu customers will make wiser choices and order lower calorie food. This will result in more New Yorkers adopting a healthier, slimmer lifestyle.

As expected many food establishment owners regard the requirement as odious. The industry association has taken their case to court and is claiming that the new law is not legitimate and that it will severely hurt business.

Of course, proponents of free markets regard laws of this type as detestable interventions. While I personally would like to see calorie information on menus, abandoning mutual consent and using government coercion is not the way to go.

Bear in mind that without any new laws most of the large restaurant chains – including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King – make calorie information readily available to interested customers. It is easy to visit these companies’ websites and read exactly how many calories each of their offerings has. Proponents of the new law argue that website information is not sufficient because it does not discourage enough people from consuming high calorie offerings.

You can be sure that once the new law goes into effect, government-funded investigators will swoop in to study the effect it is having on consumers. The most direct measure will be changes in the incidence of obesity. How does the weight of New Yorkers who eat fast food shift after calorie information is compulsory? If adiposity goes down the investigators will claim success. And they will be looking at other measures as well. For example, if the new law encourages fast-food consumers to visit high calorie establishments less frequently and this results in weight loss the researchers will be pleased. While it does not necessarily track with weight, investigators will claim success for the law if customers tend to order more low calorie foods and fewer high calorie items.

If empirical evidence demonstrates that the New York City calorie law “works” its proponents will be emboldened and will certainly call for additional legal actions. How else can they use legislation to “make a difference”?

Why stop with individual calorie counts? It might be even more effective to require restaurants to remind customers how many calories they should consume in a day – and how many are too many. Perhaps eating establishments should limit the number of calories it sells to a customer in a given dining episode – even as bartenders are prohibited from serving drinks to customers who are obviously intoxicated. Alternatively, the city could levy special taxes on high calorie items which would not only discourage consumption but would enhance government revenues.

Documenting that the new law has some desired effects will certainly encourage government junkies to ask for related legislation. Beyond calories, what is the amount of fiber in each food item? How about the vitamin content? What items are produced according to the dictates of radical environmentalists – organic, sustainable, locally grown, and unionized workers? As of now any restaurant can choose to disclose this information, but interventionists are intent on punishing “incorrect choices” and assuring that everyone complies with “official policy.”

But studying the effects of the New York City calorie law may not reveal positive results. It might turn out that investigators cannot show significant changes in consumer obesity or consumer choices. How will interventionists react if the new law does not move people in the “desired direction”?

Exactly the same as if the new law “works.” Government meddlers will interpret negative results as a sure sign that the law did not go far enough. They will concede that merely displaying calorie information does not do the trick. They will deplore that customers are willfully ignoring information that is supposed to motivate them. And they will argue the calorie law’s failure is proof that the strong arm of government is needed to set things right.

Observers who value individual autonomy regard the New York City calorie law as a symptom of an epidemic of government meddling. The cure is to restrict government policies to the protection of individual rights – forbidding the use of force or fraud and allowing restaurants and customers to agree among themselves what information will be on menus. This will result in a higher number of New Yorkers taking responsibility for their own actions.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

Comments are closed.