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A national nutrition-labeling mandate was passed as part of the healthcare reform bill on March 21, after the April issue of QSR went to print.
Long ago and far away, in the days of McLean Deluxe and salads with almost taste-free vinaigrette, McDonald’s decided that its customers deserved to know what was in the food nutritionally. So they decreed that all stores should display a poster that showed the nutrition numbers for all of the items on the menu. And it was done.
Most people ignored the poster, because you don’t go to fast food to lose weight. Unfortunately, some stores didn’t post the poster, which was too bad, since the information is important in selecting food, especially for kids.
Even then, the questions facing us today faced us fully, but were less important because of the lack of interest from the public. And as we face nutrition menu labeling today, we still haven’t solved the questions of who will set the numbers and how much range we will allow in calculating each product.
I had a wonderful conversation with John Burke of the Foodservice Packaging Institute in Washington, D.C., concerning the effects of nutrition labeling on packaging. He told me that states such as Wisconsin and Illinois are introducing legislation concerning menu labeling and, of course, the laws vary in how the numbers need to be displayed. Most importantly, there is no provision declaring how to get the numbers.
Who says that a certain sandwich has so many calories? If all 50 states do their own thing, the quick-service business will be living a nightmare. A sandwich may be one calorie count in one state, and a different count in a neighboring state. Kind of calls for a federal standard, don’t you think?
We need some objective system of setting the numbers, approved labs who will say definitively that the results are certified and unarguable. The Labeling Education and Nutrition (lean) Act of 2009 could be the answer to standardizing menu labeling around the country, but it’s stalled in Congress, and doesn’t solve every problem.
The other killer (no pun intended) question we face has to do with ranges. When the numbers are set, how far can a new test be off before the numbers are questioned (knowing our society, probably with a lawsuit)? Again, we need one percentage, not 50. Who’s going to do that? Heady stuff, huh?
Let me give you some examples of why this is so important. Let’s take a sub quick serve like Subway or Mr. Goodcents. Those poor people will be besieged. I can build a sandwich however I like it with the choice of meats, cheeses, breads, and condiments available. How in the world will they post numbers for the infinite number of possibilities the customer has? One answer is ingredients. Provide the numbers for each ingredient and let the customer do the addition. Can you see the service times as each customer stands at the head of the line and adds up his sandwich?
And what about quantities of ingredients? Anything that isn’t set, like a slice of cheese, but depends on tongs or fingers will vary by the person serving it. In the case of Mr. Goodcents, they even slice the cheese themselves.
Even in the case of a Whopper, take away the pickle and you have different numbers for the sandwich. Again, should the customer do the subtraction?
There is also some questioning about the effect of cooking and packaging on the numbers. For example, french fries lose grease to the package. Should the fries be numbered raw, after cooking, or after being in the package for a reasonable time losing grease? And, again, how do you do the numbers? Fries come in different sizes in different quick serves and even vary in a store by the hand of the server. I see few customers carrying their own scales into their favorite restaurant.
Now, what about how the information is displayed? Lots of arguments here. According to Burke, some states want the information on the front of the packaging. The problem here is that the quick-service customer doesn’t see the package until he buys it and owns it. This is in direct contrast to the grocery store, where I can study the package and then decide to buy or not because of the fat content.
Then there’s the Hershey’s chocolate problem. They were asked to name the country of origin for the cocoa beans in the chocolate and put it clearly on the package. The company uses beans from 150 countries. How in the heck can it meet that requirement? And then they were asked to put a box around the information and in a certain type size, style, and color. Folks, it’s just chocolate.
I don’t think menuboard postings or packaging are the answer to the problem. There must be another solution besides states’ rights, because two stores can be in the same TV market, but also in two different states with different requirements. Happens all over the country. Look at the Chicago TV market. It encompasses four states.
You know, it comes down to trust. We have to build a contract of trust with our customers. They need to know that we want to provide them with the tools to make informed decisions about what they eat but that we have problems doing it accurately. And it’s up to us to figure out how to do it, not the Federal Government or 50 states. We need to form a committee from our industry to figure out how to do this before someone does it for us. Someone who doesn’t understand our problems. I volunteer.
Just recently, a study was done with McDonald’s food and the effect nutrition numbers have on ordering for kids. The menu with numbers caused parents to order food with 100 fewer calories than the menu without numbers. It’s really important to solve nutrition labeling. Who wants to help?