Why must restaurants post calorie counts, but not allergen lists?
As part of the massive health care reform act that President Obama signed into law early last year, restaurant chains with more than 20 locations must post calorie counts on print, display, and drive-thru menus. Unfortunately, there are no regulations requiring restaurants to post allergen information, despite the huge need among the food allergy community.
While it is generally accepted that the obesity rate is soaring in America, so are the number of people with food allergies. More than 12 million people in the US have food allergies, or 4% of the population. That number is even higher for children under the age of 3, at 6%. Additionally, another 3 million people have been diagnosed with Celiac Disease.
Since the time when the health care law was first being considered, I was bothered by the following: Individuals who regularly eat high calorie restaurant meals will likely gain weight over time and are setting themselves up for significant health risks, possibly including earlier death, down the road – obviously nothing to take lightly. However, individuals who accidentally eat a meal containing a food they are allergic too can have severe health effects immediately, potentially even fatal!
Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to minimize obesity concerns. I am however frustrated, since posting food allergen information can help protect the lives of the huge, and growing, food allergy population TODAY? And what really gnaws at me is this – how difficult would it be for restaurant operators to create simple allergen lists if they are already going through the very complicated process of determining detailed health information for each item on their menus?! That is the enigma that drives me… well, “nuts”… every time I hear about calorie counts.
(In the midst of all this, of course, is the question regarding whether or not any type of government mandate is appropriate. I’ll leave that for each of you to decide, but for the sake of this piece, I’m assuming that we are now living in the “new normal.”)
Massachusetts recently passed legislation around food allergy training in restaurants, which is a tremendous victory for our community. However, while the new policies are certainly a step in the right direction, they don’t go far enough, in my opinion (see “Massachusetts food allergy law goes into effect… but is it enough?” – www.allergyeats.com/blog/index.php/massachusetts-food-allergy-law). Why not require restaurants to list at least the Big 8 food allergens on their menus (or have lists handy with this information)? Many thought-leading restaurants – and some that aren’t thought-leading – already do this.
Food-allergic diners have become accustomed to asking servers questions about ingredients, kitchen protocol, and cross-contamination. If restaurants were required to maintain accurate, up-to-date allergen information for each of their menu items (as they will have to with calorie counts), it would serve as an additional safety mechanism for our food allergy community. This, of course, could also drive more customers, and profits, for the restaurants.
The government has focused their attention on calorie counts, even though it’s pretty obvious that a bacon double cheeseburger and fries have more calories than a plate of steamed fish and vegetables. It is far less simple to determine if a meal you have been served contains specific food allergens, even after visual inspection.
Professional and consumer groups are applauding the calorie-posting law as a victory, calling it a valuable new tool to fight obesity. But will it really make a difference? Will customers actually decide not to order a big plate of nachos because the calorie count is now posted on the menu? Did they not already realize that tortilla chips piled high with cheese, sour cream and bacon is a calorie bomb?
The answer, according to the first study I’ve seen on the subject (which came out a few weeks ago), is no! The posting of calories and other health information had no impact on the dining behavior among customers of the restaurant chain used in the study.
The food allergy community is very concerned about food safety, yet most state and regional government bodies are, for the most part, ignoring this issue. The Massachusetts food allergy rules are definitely a step in the right direction, but these laws need to be more far-reaching, both in terms of content and geography. If the federal government can pass calorie posting legislation then, in my opinion, there is no reason that food allergy policies with national reach shouldn’t be considered. Will it take a high-profile tragedy to spur them to action? I fear so.
What do you think? Am I minimizing the obesity issue in this country? Am I right that food allergy legislation could’ve easily been included in the calorie posting law? Do you think we will ever see meaningful, national food allergy laws? Add your thoughts below by clicking on Comments or Reply. I am sure this piece is eliciting a huge range of differing opinions and I want to hear yours!
And please take this opportunity to further build a tool that is helping our food allergic and intolerant population dine out more comfortably today – AllergyEats (www.allergyeats.com). Please go to our main site and rate any restaurants you’ve dined at recently. It only takes a minute to rate a restaurant, but each rating makes the site more valuable for all of us.
[This blog post was created with input from Adrienne Walkowiak]