Menu Labeling: The Unintended Consequences to the Consumer
Food and Drug Law Journal, Vol. 69, pg. 531 (2014)
24 Pages Posted: 7 Sep 2017
Date Written: 2014
Why are Americans, along with the rest of the most populous nations, more overweight than twenty or thirty years ago? Most nutritionists and scientists agree that the answer is complex and multifaceted, with genetics, exercise, and diet all playing at least a partial role. Americans, for the last thirty years, have been reportedly eating out at restaurants more frequently than they have been eating at home; as a result, the restaurant industry has been blamed, in part, for the rise in obesity, based upon the presumption that more calories are consumed at restaurants than at home. Yet determining the underlying causes of obesity is not simple; thus, the proposed solutions to combat the obesity problem have been numerous and wide-ranging. Indeed, how to tackle the obesity crisis has become a national debate, with proposed solutions originating from both public and private entities. One proposed government solution that has emerged from the obesity debate is menu labeling, which requires certain eating places to post nutrition information on their menus.
The theory behind menu labeling presupposes that consumers lack information about the nutritional content of the food they consume when eating away from home, and that those consumers desire more information about their food when visiting a restaurant. Thus, with menu labeling, consumers become armed with knowledge of the nutritional content of their food, and with this knowledge consumers will choose healthier food options over less healthy options. As consumers choose these healthier options, they will maintain a more appropriate body weight, thereby lowering the country's obesity rate. Another notion is that restaurants, knowing they must post the nutritional content on their menus, will seek to develop healthier food options and seek to satisfy consumers' desires for healthier food options. Thus, in theory, menu labeling appears to be one tool in the tool belt to help the nation make healthier choices.
Although the premise behind menu labeling is laudable, it may not fully consider how and why consumers make particular food choices and whether the menu labeling requirement will be effective at changing consumer behavior to ultimately lower the nation's obesity rate. If menu labeling is not effective, consumers may be faced with negative unintended consequences, such as higher food prices, with no correlative health benefit. This article seeks to fully examine the menu labeling law, its impact on consumer decisions, and the potential negative consequences that may result from the law. Part II of this article reviews the background of menu labeling, focusing on the requirements of the new menu labeling provision under the Affordable Care Act. Part III considers those municipalities with menu labeling laws and the studies that have been conducted to determine the effectiveness of their respective menu labeling requirements. Part IV analyzes the complexity of consumer behavior, with particular focus on how this behavior presents a significant hurdle to the impact of menu labeling. Part V contemplates the unintended consequences of the menu labeling law.
Keywords: Menu labeling, Affordable Care Act, obesity
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