In a 2007 survey of California voters, 84 percent said they thought the government should force restaurant chains to display calorie numbers on their menus and menu boards. That may happen soon: The state Assembly is considering a bill, already approved by the state Senate, that would make California the first state to impose such a menu mandate.
Yet the desires that people express in polls are often at odds with the preferences they reveal in the marketplace. The restaurant business is highly competitive. If customers really were clamoring for conspicuous calorie counts, restaurants would provide them voluntarily.
I won’t pretend that I really have a strong opinion on this issue, but Sullum is off base here. It’s like saying that if people really wanted to know how much mercury was in their fish, then fishmongers would just tell them. But it’s not so — at least not in any time frame that might be helpful to actual existing people. Centuries of history suggests that, consumer preference notwithstanding, sellers will work like crazed lemmings to prevent buyers from finding out bad things about their products. Over and over, it’s turned out that collective action has been the only effective way to force businesses to disclose negative information about their products.
And make no mistake: calorie counts are decidedly negative. Most people would be pretty shocked if they knew, for example, that even a medium-size Big Mac meal contains well over half the calories an average person ought to consume in an entire day. (You probably knew this already, but that’s because Political Animal readers are such a well-informed lot. Most people have no clue.) Fast food marketing departments, conversely, are keenly aware of this, and would very much prefer to keep their customers unshocked and happily supersizing their purchases.
That being the reality we live in, then, there’s nothing wrong with expressing our preferences for product disclosure through our legislatures as well as through our buying decisions. On the other hand, I suspect that Sullum is on stronger ground when he says that calorie disclosure laws probably won’t work. After all, we’ve had federally-mandated calorie disclosures on food for many years, and although it’s opened up new marketing opportunities for purveyors of “Lite” and “Lo-Cal” fare, it hasn’t had any noticeable impact on aggregate calorie consumption. Calorie labeling in restaurants might be worth a try (states being the laboratories of democracy and all that), but I’ll be surprised if it ends up having much of an effect.