You're starving. You've slaved through lunch and dinner, and all you can think about is picking up something at Denny's – specifically from its "Baconalia" menu. Bacon meatloaf, the BBBLT sandwich, even the maple-bacon ice cream sundae sounds good.
But as you stare at the glossy menu, the nutritional information grimaces back with a look of disapproval and shame. Does it change your mind? Of course not – it's not as if you thought the triple bacon sampler was going to make its way onto "The Biggest Loser" anytime soon. But it is enough to put a damper on your enjoyment of the meal.
So why will this information soon be broadcast directly to your seat at the table? Is it that restaurants want to warn diners of health hazards that lie ahead? Certainly not – many restaurants have such information readily available on their websites for those calorie-conscious consumers who want it. Is it that you asked for it? Even if you didn't, many chains have nutritional brochures close at hand in case you do. Denny's, in fact, already has both.
The reason is that the federal government – one with mounting deficits, the longest active war in US history, and near-government shutdowns – has seen fit to enact a law requiring restaurants with more than 20 locations to rub your face in nutritional stats.
The Food and Drug Administration hopes to finalize proposed regulations by the end of this year, taking effect perhaps by next summer – maybe later if restaurants get the delay they seek.
Nevermind that such regulations, when implemented at the state and local level, have all but failed. Take New York City – a pioneer of menu-labeling back in 2008. Although about a quarter of fast-food patrons told researchers the information helped them make healthier choices, a comparison of their receipts with those of cus-tomers in New Jersey – where menus aren't labeled – found that New York customers had in fact ordered food with slightly more calories. Another study showed that even when people ordered less, they made up for it by eating more later in the day.
And it's not as though the information comes cheap. Labs charge anywhere from $850 to $1,000 to analyze the nutritional content of a single entree. Of course, should the labs make a mistake or should a generous employee top your cone with an extra loop of frozen yogurt, you can be sure lawyers will be waiting in the wings to file suit.
Owners will also need to replace menu boards at costs ranging from around $250 for a standard sign to more than $2,000 for digital signage. Going digital may prove a necessity since menus will need to be relabeled every time a chef adjusts a recipe. Given that the fast-food industry already operates on paper-thin margins, these costs will almost certainly be passed on to the very low-income consumers the law purports to protect.
More important, if this law has been met with so little criticism – the National Restaurant Association actually endorses it – imagine what's next. Maybe the government will require Netflix to run ads informing us we'd burn more calories jogging than sitting on the couch. Perhaps the government will force Wal-Marts in low-income areas to warn parents that the $300 they're about to spend on an Xbox would be better put into a college fund.
The possibilities are limitless and, even if motivated by the best of intentions, inimical to Americans' freedom. An integral part of living in a free society is the ability to make choices – "good and bad" – without the watchful eye of Big Brother guilting us into making better ones.
It's 2011. If we want information, we know how to get it. Menu-labeling laws may appear innocuous, but they're nothing more than the government ordering us an unwanted, piping-hot side of guilt with every meal, and then sending us the tab. I'd rather have a side of bacon.