While Donald Trump’s presidency has by no means been an unqualified victory for conservatives, one of his more praiseworthy efforts has been to roll back excessive regulations coming out of the various federal agencies. News out of the FDA continues that trend this week, as the agency has announced that it intends to further delay a rule that would require restaurant chains to publically display the calorie counts of everything on their menus.
Like almost everything the FDA does, this rule is a really bad idea. To begin with, it’s an unnecessary burden for businesses. Now wait a minute, I hear you ask, what’s so burdensome about publishing a calorie count? Isn’t it as simple as just adding a line of text to a menu? Not really. First of all, accurate calorie counts require testing, and testing costs money. As I’ve pointed out in the past, it can cost around $1,000 to determine the exact calorie count of a particular kind of beer. Now multiply that cost not just by the number of beers on the menu, but by every dish the restaurant creates, and it really starts to add up.
Others have pointed out that the problem is particularly acute for pizza chains, where pies are heavily customized with a variety of ingredients and sauces. For example, a pizza joint that offers nine different toppings and two types of sauce can create over 5 million different pizza combinations, each with a different number of calories. In this situation, maybe the restaurant could get away with just listing the calories associated with each individual ingredient, but it still becomes complicated when you factor in common requests like extra cheese and half-and-half pies. The point is that for a restaurant with a lot of options, this is far from a costless regulation.
And who bears the cost? Well, we all do. Part of it will be passed along to consumers in the form of higher prices, as well as the reduced choices that will result from altered menus and restaurants outright closing. Part of it will be paid by the entrepreneurs and workers who run the restaurants. Part of it will be paid by suppliers selling ingredients to the restaurants. Basically, everybody who eats is going to suffer for the sake of this regulation.
And what is the benefit? The FDA bureaucrats will claim that the goal is transparency and an increase in consumer knowledge. An informed consumer is a safe consumer, they will say, and publishing calorie information is necessary to keep consumers informed about what they are eating. Of course, this is all nonsense. Free software is widely available to estimate the caloric information of a wide variety of common food items. If people want that information, there is nothing preventing them from getting it. While this may not be as exact as what the regulation requires, it is more than sufficient for the purposes of an ordinary dieter.
In truth, the FDA is not concerned about informing people at all, but rather about behavior modification. Our all-knowing government has decided that we, the American public, eat too much and is endeavoring to scare or shame us into fitness through regulation. The agency’s belief is that if we are forced to see how many calories we are consuming, we will consume fewer of them. It’s a debatable proposition in the first place, but the important point is that we are being subjected to subtle manipulation by our government.
It is not the role of the federal government to try to influence our consumption choices, to tell us what to eat, to lecture us about our choices, or to protect us from ourselves. The FDA’s only legitimate role, if any, is to stop companies from accidentally poisoning us. It is commendable that, under Trump, the agency has elected to delay this costly and intrusive rule, but I for one will not be happy until they kill it altogether.