San Francisco Wants to Regulate Menus

Last Updated Jul 9, 2008 6:56 PM EDT

This is one of those on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand stories. The California Restaurant Association has filed a lawsuit against the city of San Francisco, seeking to strike down an ordinance requiring many restaurants â€" mostly of the fast-food variety â€" to post nutritional information on their menus and menu boards.

fatguyeatingThe ordinance, to take effect in September, will require all chains with at least 20 statewide outlets to include such information as calories, carbs, fat and salt on menus and posters of the same size and using the same font as the menus and menu boards themselves.

On one hand, the restaurant group is right that the ordinance will create a special expense for restaurateurs in San Francisco. The group also notes that other municipalities in the state are starting to follow suit, which could create a hodgepodge of local ordinances, all of them at least a little different. And what happens when the trend goes national?

On the other hand, the group is claiming that its First Amendment rights are being violated, which is just silly, and bordering on offensive. City Attorney Dennis Herrera put it thusly: "I think it's outrageous that fat-peddling chain restaurants are asserting a First Amendment right to keep consumers uninformed about the nutritional contents of their menu items."

He's right. On the other hand, does anybody order a Royale With Cheese thinking it's a health food? When the number of calories in a single sandwich is nearly half the recommended daily intake, does the precise calorie count matter that much?

On the other hand, McDonald's and other chains also sell salads that, when dressing is added, are highly caloric, and full of salt. There are many restaurant items whose nutritional content would surprise a lot of people.

As the group notes, a menu board sporting nutritional information for every item could become a big mess of text, slowing down business and annoying customers.

And, the lawsuit says, the ordinance shouldn't be allowed to supersede state and federal laws and regulations

There's no "other hand" for that one. Even if that objection is not legally accurate (I don't know whether it is or not), this kind of thing should really be handled at the state or federal level. As much as I sympathize with what the city is trying to do, such local ordinances are about the clumsiest possible solution.

Indeed, the association itself supports proposed state legislation in California that would require chains to make nutrition information available, but would offer them flexibility on how to present it.

That sounds like a fine solution. People should know what's in their food. But at some point, people should take some responsibility for finding it out themselves. A box full of fliers or a poster near the counter should be enough.

  • Dan Mitchell

    Dan Mitchell has spent the past 20 years writing and editing for newspapers, magazines, and Web publications. Currently, he writes the What's Online column for the Saturday business section of the New York Times. He has also written for the Chicago Tribune, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, National Public Radio, Business 2.0, and Wired.