“Every year our government adds thousands and thousands of pages of new rules,” John Stossel stated in his TV special, War on the Little Guy. Now a new regulation is scheduled to go into effect – one that FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg says “will help consumers make informed choices for themselves and their families.” Vending machine operators that run more than twenty machines must post calorie counts (when not otherwise visible before purchase) for sale items. This rule, buried in the 2010 Affordable Care Act, is to go into full effect July 26th, 2018 – it took the FDA four years just to spell out a regulation that would fulfil the ACA’s provisions. In fact, their final ruling even regulates “type size, color, and contrast requirements for calorie declarations in or on the vending machines.” While this regulation will clearly have costs for the industries it affects, the FDA contends that it will “enable consumers to make informed and healthful dietary choices.” It sounds fantastic! Operators spend a little on calorie labels, and now all vending machine consumers can be healthy! Is this the case? Do the benefits really outweigh the costs?
Both in time and money, the costs of this regulation are immense. According to the 75th Volume of the Federal Register, the estimated time cost sustained by vending machine operators for “disclosing” the calorie content is a total of 14,037,400 recurring hours, more than twenty 75 year life spans! Besides the time cost however, there is also a monetary cost involved in all this labeling. The FDA’s estimate of the starting cost is $388,430,000, with a recurring cost of $55,130,000. The initial cost alone would buy over 1,500 brand new Ferraris! Naturally companies will not merely absorb such a large cost, but will pass it on to the consumer through their products, causing the price to rise. But the FDA contends that these costs will be far outweighed by the benefits. If extra time and money on this end prevents all kinds of health problems on the other, isn’t it worth it?
Just how effective have calorie labels proved in the past? As the FDA admitted, the new regulations “are based on the assumption that increasing the accessibility of the nutrition information for certain foods will increase the likelihood that consumers will use them to make informed and healthful dietary choices.” But astonishingly, Dr. Brian Elbel, when interviewed by the University of Pennsylvania, stated on the basis of several studies that calorie disclosure “is not tending to make a large influence in population health.” George Loewenstien says in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “Very few of these studies found a beneficial effect of calorie posting, and even for those that did, the effect was miniscule.” In fact, Loewenstien points out that calorie labeling might even backfire. If a consumer has been thinking of junk food as containing more calories than it really does, trying to pressure himself by guilt into avoiding them, listing the real calorie content could relieve this guilty feeling. Or, if a customer compares a 360 calorie chicken sandwich to a 540 calorie Big Mac® with a similar price, he may decide that the Big Mac is a better deal – more calories for your buck! So studies show conclusively that calorie labeling certainly does not have the awesome effects intended for it, and may even have negative results. What was the FDA’s response when these types of problems were brought up during the review period? If it doesn’t work, that’s too bad, because “section 4205 of the ACA requires us to issue regulations to implement the vending machine labeling requirements, as specified in section 403(q)(5)(H)(viii) of the FD&C Act.” Case closed!
“It’s about to get a lot tougher to hide from calories,” said Brady Dennis of The Washington Post. Certainly, if the FDA has anything to say about it, calorie counts will be invading our every meal. But although providing consumers with this information raises costs without really benefiting them, the real problem goes deeper than this. Is my health my responsibility or the government’s? As long as society thinks it is the government’s job to keep us healthy, more and more regulations are going to be necessary. Not only are such health regulations futile and ineffective – as in the case of calorie labeling – they do not fulfil the government’s job! I am responsible to keep myself healthy. If I fail, I will suffer. Government cannot, and should not, try to do my job for me!