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Dec 17, 2008 08:21 AM

Is there a role for food police?

Will menu label affect what good restaurants serve?
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  1. A well-balanced piece, thanks for sharing it.

    1. Yes, thank you! I think the issue for me is summed up by the guy who said: "Menu labeling gives people the information to make healthful eating decisions, but it doesn't tell people how to eat or limit options."

      Giving me the information isn't "nannying" or "control" -- it's what allows consumers to make their own choices among the plethora of competing products based on what's important to them.

      Then, hopefully, the market will take care of itself: if people want more healthful items they'll gravitate towards them and restaurants will be encouraged to add more, and if people don't want them, then they won't!

      28 Replies
      1. re: Ruth Lafler

        Exactly. I don't understand why people think labels means big brother. It seems like the opposite to me. Giving people information to make their decision seems less Big Brother than keeping them ignorant and saying "Trust us--it's fine for you." Being Big Brother is about lack of information for the public, not more. It's already on food labels in grocery stores and no one is being forced to read them. It's there for people who care.

        1. re: chowser

          While I generally agree with you chowser that more info equals better situation for everyone involved, I disagree with you about the "Big Brother" argument.

          The big brother issue here is between government regulators and restaurants (or restaurant owners); and not government regulators and diners.

          In this instance, the big brother is making restaurants post nutritional info.

          1. re: ipsedixit

            How do you feel about labeling requirements for packaged foods sold in grocery stores? (Note: this is a real question; I'm not trying to be snarky.)

            1. re: jlafler

              I have no problems with the government legislating more information (e.g. food labels).

              I have definite problems with the government legislating choice (e.g. no fast-food restaurants in South Central LA).

              1. re: ipsedixit

                I do, too. I find it condescending to pick one area like that, too. Have they really done that--prohibiting fast food in South Central? Like people in Beverly Hills have bodies that don't respond the same to fast food? They might have the means to surgery to keep themselves thin but it doesn't make them any healthier.

                1. re: chowser

                  People in Beverly Hills have more choices. Big chain fast food places proliferate in low-income areas and force out small businesses, groceries, etc., creating essentially a culinary monoculture where fast food is the only food.

                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                    Were there any groceries in South Central? I haven't been there in over 15 years but it seemed like there were convenience stores for overly priced food and no place to get fresh produce which was a big problem (and ironic given the bounty California produces). Did they prohibit all fast food or limited them? I can understand the problem w/ there being all fast food, with the disappearance of all other businesses, but to prohibit all together seems to take away the residents right to make their own decision.

                    1. re: chowser

                      Not knowing what the law or regulation is, or whether it exists at all, it's hard to say if it's egregious. But every city has zoning laws (except, I am told, Houston), not to mention building codes, so the government is always involved in neighborhood business development. If zoning laws promote the proliferation of certain types of businesses in different neighborhoods, is that more or less significant than an overt ban? I don't know.

                      1. re: jlafler

                        It's a fine line between zoning and prohibition, just as regulations are fine lines. No one wants to allow food producers to put in melamine, my previous example, but do we want regulations that prevent trans fat (I know it's a debate), HFCS, etc.? Extreme examples are easy but fine tuning harder. You don't want a neighborhood of all liquor stores but where do you draw the line?

                      2. re: chowser

                        They didn't prohibit them -- the put a moratorium on new ones.

                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                          Okay, that makes more sense. I was wondering how they'd make that work.

                        2. re: chowser

                          Grocery stores do not want to open in areas like South Central LA because of the high crime rate (which includes crime from BOTH customers and employees).

                          This is despite the fact that areas like South Central LA have offered numerous incentives, from tax breaks to grants, to lure grocery stores and markets.

                          My reaction to all this? Don't legislate against fast food, doing so merely treats the symptom and not the cause.

                          1. re: ipsedixit

                            I agree--education goes a lot farther than regulation.

                            1. re: chowser

                              Where regulation -- in this case, zoning -- overlaps with education is in the very strong message sent by these food deserts (fast food twice as easy to get to as fresh food.) That's a more powerful message than anything you could teach a kid in a school.
                              Here's a short interesting video about lack of grocery stores in Detroit

                              1. re: pitu

                                That was really interesting -- there's a similar urban farm in West Oakland CA (a blighted area much like Detroit) called City Slicker Farms.

                                I will say, though, that there's more that has to be done in looking at the cultural factors in these "food deserts." People dance around the issues of race in America, but in my travels around Oakland, whether there are grocery stores in an area is clearly more dependent on the racial/ethnic make-up of the neighborhood than the economic make-up: poor immigrant (Latino and Asian) neighborhoods are bursting with markets, both small and midsize local markets and some chains.

                                I think part of the probem is that during the time ('60s-'90s) the older inner city neighborhoods collapased they created whole generations of people who see fast food as the norm, who see fast food as preferrable because they've been brainwashed by decades of advertising, and who don't even know what to do with fresh food. And so you have a vicious circle: there aren't any grocery stores so people have stopped using grocery stores, so someone looking to open a grocery store doesn't see a customer base. It's not enough to put markets in innercity neighborhoods -- they've tried that in West Oakland and the stores couldn't make it. You need to change the whole food culture in those neighborhoods, which is why, I think, these urban farms are a good way to go: they reconnect people with their food and food production, and most of all, they make it cool and interesting for children, who bring it home to their families and who will hopefully rebuild the next generation with better notions about food.

                                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                  Oakland is unique, too, because it has that great farmers market, or used to 5+ years ago when I lived in that area. There's such a difference between that area, where Alice Waters helps grow a garden fo Berkeley high schoolers and prepare real food, and south central LA area (or, at least my experience when we lived there which was over a decade ago so it could be night and day). Education is important but reality is the driving force.

                                  1. re: chowser

                                    Right. But my point was that just plunking down grocery stores didn't work in West Oakland, but city farms and farmers markets did, for a variety of reasons.

                                    There's a reason there aren't any stores in those neighborhoods: the neighborhoods -- for one reason or another -- don't support them. You have to rebuild the demand -- establish a customer base -- and farmers markets and urban farms are a good way to do that, since they can grow organically (pardon the pun), and don't require a huge infusion of capital and infrastructure.

                                    In addition, even in that video segment I saw a certain failure of vision: people still see the "major/chain" supermarket as the most desirable model for providing groceries. But that's a really suburban notion of planning that's not applicable to densely populated urban areas. A supermarket is based on the idea that there are fewer, larger markets farther apart for people who have cars and are doing large volume shopping. But in urban areas where fewer people have cars, where homes and kitchens are smaller, and where there are a large proportion of small households (singles, elderly, etc.) the smaller neighborhood market that people can walk to and where they can buy less food more frequently is a better model. Again, look at the markets that are successful in urban areas: those in ethnic/immigrant neighborhoods.

                                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                      Sorry, I was caught up in the idea of the urban farm (love the idea) and didn't get to address the stores concepts. I don't know if it's culture/time/a combination but I think most Americans, not chowhounds, but the average American doesn't cook much anymore. They put together processed foods but cooking from scratch tends to be more from immigrants, as in those neighborhoods where Asians/hispanic immigrants tend to live adn that's what does well in those neighborhoods. So, it's not economic but cultural. When I look at potlucks, the home made food is more from people who've come from other countries whereas 2nd+ generation Americans bring Prego and spaghetti sauce. I'd love to follow the farm and see how successful it is in getting people to cook real food. Few Americans I know, in any economic level, really cook.

                                      1. re: chowser

                                        I too am deeply enamored with the urban farm idea, both for education and fresh food. Added-Value,org is the one close to me in NYC.

                                        Another film related, The Garden, about a giant urban farm in south central LA. It's a doc, hope it's going to be on tv at some point.
                                        Immigrant population gets back to the land, feeding their families. The film details the political fights between black and brown - it's pretty awesome on a number of levels.

                                        1. re: chowser

                                          Good points about the different communities/immigrants/econ levels, and that very essential idea about how we get our food. (I go to a very ethnically and economically diverse food coop, and the membership is always growing so I have hope about the choices people are making.)

                                          To that other point, the next generation in the american melting pot often gives in to the fast food and Prego pretty flippin quick. phooey.

                                          1. re: pitu

                                            It's scary how quickly. My MIL makes the best chinese food and is a wonder to watch. My SILs have embraced stove top stuffing, gravy from a jar, hormel chili and velveeta cheese ("queso"), green bean casserole, boxed cakes. Everything comes out of a box or jar.

                                          2. re: chowser

                                            At a potluck at my daughter's school this morning, I overheard part of an interesting conversation between one of the teachers (African American) and one of the dads (Iranian-born) about how to cook greens.

                                            But yeah, I agree with you that recent immigrants to the U.S. are probably the most active cooks. For many Americans, cooking has become relegated to the status of hobby. Some people do it because they enjoy it, but very few people see it as essential.

                                            1. re: jlafler

                                              That's great--I can imagine someone Iranian learning to cook the best greens. My friend, whose family was from Jamaica w/ an interesting mix of Chinese, Japanese, English, and Jamaican indian blood, grew up in NYC and her mom learned to cook from other immigrants so when she wanted to learn to cook say, Italian food, she did it the old fashioned way by simmering tomatoes, etc. all day. They all learned to cook other cuisines that way, the way your grandmother would have done it. I thought it was so cool.

                                              As you said, some people cook because they enjoy it, eg Chowhounds. To many people, cooking is opening up boxes and jars.

                                    2. re: pitu

                                      That started out so discouraging but what an uplifting video. It's great to see people take charge like that. They need to change the name of the video from red to blue, though.;-)

                                    3. re: chowser

                                      I wish that were true, but it seems to me that the reduction in the number of smokers was due to high "sin" taxes and bans on smoking in most indoor spaces, not education.

                                      1. re: Rmis32

                                        I think the education part helped in establishing the bans and taxes - if people see it as harmful, not just to the individual, but the people around them, then they are more likely to push for bans and punitive taxes.

                                        The same thing is happening with thinks like pop now - drinking pop is seen as a moral issue, because drinking pop makes you fat, and being fat makes you sick, and being sick costs the taxpayers money. So it's okay to ban people from drinking pop, or to charge extra taxes on sweet drinks. The logic isn't necessarily all that sound, but that's how it works.

                        3. re: ipsedixit

                          I don't think it's really a big brother incident. It's not like the government is banning a specific ingredient or type of food, it's just requiring more information be given about it. I see it as no different from the food labels when I buy something premade from a deli or bakery, or the stickers on certain fruits to tell us the country of origin. Japanese chain izakaya have been doing this for a while and you'd never see anything with the astronomical calorie counts you'd find in the US. The labeling may ultimately end up in the restaurants tweaking their dishes a bit, but there is no command to do so.

                          1. re: ipsedixit

                            I don't see a connection between Big Brother in 1984 and making corporations provide what they're putting in food. Big Brother was about government and average people, not about government and corporations. I want to know there is no melamine in my food. Is it Big Brother of the government to prevent corporations from putting it in? That seems more Big Brother than making McDonald's tell customers what is in their food and the nutritional breakdown and people are fine with that type of regulation.

                      3. In NYC the labeling was preceeded by the banning of transfats, which was preceeded by soda machines being replaced by Snapple and juice vending in schools and other city buildings. So the Big Brother/Food Police/Nanny idea got attached early on (to the bans) and stayed associated when it was just about information.

                        It's a public health issue in the same way that smoking is; individuals need solid info to make informed decisions, AND society has to pay for public health problems so they have a stake in what We eat.

                        Personally, I love seeing a calorie count listed next to the price at a chain lunch place. I wonder if they've started doing it at Starbucks with those absurdly caloric drinks? In NYC, smaller places without the same standardization are not required to post calorie counts, because it's an undue burden and their menu might change too often to make it practical.

                        I wish there was regulatory $$ to do testing. Remember all those frozen yogurt places that got busted for lying about calorie counts?

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: pitu

                          Yes, the scourge of the false equivalency -- the last refuge of the rhetorically bankrupt -- strikes again.

                          I think the transfat ban -- even though I agree with it -- does qualify as "nannying." But when it comes to what public institutions choose to make available in their own buildings, well, that's their right, just as it's a private company's right to decide what to offer on their premises. Schools in particular are *supposed* to be educating children, and that education should include what is and isn't nutritious. I don't see any difference between deciding what foods to offer in school and deciding what textbooks to use and what books to put in the library.

                          I'd much rather see the school board decide what is appropriate for children to consume in schools than the situation in many districts where companies like Pepsico have purchased the right to use schools children are required to attend to provide a captive audience for their advertising. Basically, they've bribed the schools into endorsing their products and co-opted the position of authority and credibility that schools possess in a child's world in order to create the impression that their products are just as beneficial and even necessary for the child as the educational products and services offered by the school.

                          1. re: pitu

                            I'm not sure I agree with the bans but I think food that is cooked in trans fats should be labeled, and restaurants should make it prominent so you can make an informed decision. I agree w/ Ruth about the schools since children often have no choice and they're too young to decide. But, adults should be able to make their own decisions.

                            I agree about lies and labelilng. Aren't there always class action suits that follow when it's found out? It seems like you can only get away with it for so long.

                          2. more info is better. period.

                            1. The newly implemented law seems to be having an impact on New Yorker's food choices and restaurants' menu mix, according to this report,

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: Melanie Wong

                                Interesting! Some people see posting calories as being harmful to restaurants, but as someone who periodically counts calories, posting calorie counts would actually allow/encourage me to eat out more. I tend to avoid restaurants because it's easier to count calories from foods I buy that have calorie info on the labels and from food I prepare myself than to try to estimate the calories in restaurant food.

                                1. re: Melanie Wong

                                  Here's a discussion in progress re: NPR piece with a researcher with a limited experiment in one restaurant who says otherwise.