Nutrition Labeling Laws for Chain Restaurants May FINALLY Be a Thing in May 2018

Update 3/20: The General Manager of Proper Food reached out to me and we had a productive phone call on 3/19. She was gracious and acknowledged that this information is important and that they have nothing to hide. They are working with a reputable food lab to measure their nutritional ingredients for their staple menu items and her conservative estimate for having this info available to customers is June/July. I'm grateful and impressed that she took time to discuss this with me and am pleased the info will soon be available. 

What I thought was a simple information request has turned into a complex legal research project, a one-sided social media battle with a restaurant chain and the uncovering of perhaps the biggest example of government ineptitude I've ever witnessed (and I worked as a consultant to the government in Washington, D.C. for many years). This is some Erin Brockovich sh*t, ya'll.

The "Proper" Background

There is a popular lunch spot in my neighborhood called Proper Food that has nine locations in the Bay Area. They sell grab and go boxes of salads, sandwiches and gourmet entrees like Octopus Primavera with Farro and Couscous with Honey-Coriander Chicken. The line is always out the door and several of my clients eat there regularly. So I went to check it out and grab some meals to take home for dinner. Let me start by saying, their food is delicious. And I want to believe their marketing claims. Like I REALLY want to believe them because their food is so tasty. According to their advertising, their brand is "Simple, Honest Fare":

At Proper Food, we make it a cinch to eat well on the run. We craft our fare by hand fresh every morning the only way we know how – with whole, local, organic ingredients sliced, chopped and seasoned with care. Nothing phony or factory-made. Just good, proper food that’s packed and ready to go.

They talk a good game about how healthy and nutritious their food is. I mean, it's good for you, right? So I was surprised they don't have nutritional info on anything. They list the ingredients which is somewhat helpful, but they do not list calories or macronutrients (grams of protein, carbs and fat) like many restaurants in California do. I figured it must be on their web site. Nope. I figured if I emailed them they would send it to me. Nope. I figured if I fussed on Facebook and Twitter they would hear me and reply. Nope. Radio silence. And I'm not the only one pestering them. Other Bay Area folks have been pinging them for over a year to provide basic nutritional info for their food (see images below for my email, Facebook and Twitter inquires that have gone unanswered). 

Why am I being such a pest? While their food is seriously delicious and being advertised as healthy, my gut (and eyes) tell me that some of their entrees are extremely high in calories (I'm guessing some may be as high as 800-1,200 calories in one of those packaged boxes) and may not be as heathy as they are leading us to believe. I may be wrong. I want to be wrong. And as a nutrition coach and someone who cares about what he puts in his body, it's royally pissing me off that I can't figure it out. So until I know what's in those tasty little boxes I'm boycotting. 

Isn't That Against the Law?

Like many folks I've spoken with, at first I thought this was against the law. I remember the buzz years ago when California passed some pretty groundbreaking legislation that required nutritional information. And I remember when calories and macros sprung up on menus at places like Starbucks and California Pizza Kitchen. And I remember how folks FREAKED when they learned what was actually in what they were eating. And not long after those places started to offer lower calorie options. Shocker, you mean when people can clearly see in black and white the astronomical calorie counts for their favorite meals that despite a healthy sounding name and marketing they don't want to eat it? And restaurants respond by providing healthier options and giving consumers a choice? Score California. Good work! Almost. 

Here's what happened. It's kind of complicated and I'm doing my best to understand it myself. In 2009 California enacted a pioneering law authored by state Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) that required restaurants to put nutritional information on menus so consumers can make informed decisions about what they eat. The law was applauded by Obama who made it part of Obamacare/the Affordable Care Act in 2010. In a move they thought made sense (I guess), the California legislature repealed its original law and replaced it with a new version that was identical to the federal provisions.. According to Padilla in this 2014 LA Times article "We wanted to be consistent with national requirements." So they undid their awesome work that restaurants were already beginning to comply with and linked up with the Feds giving restaurants who don't want to comply a ginormous loophole because the FDA has continually delayed its deadline for compliance since the rule was finalized in December 2014. The date was first set at December 1, 2015 and then December 1, 2016 and then May 5, 2017 and most recently it was pushed back again to May 7, 2018. WTF???

My faith in our government wasn't very strong to begin with. Remember, I worked on the Hill for years. I was a public relations and marketing consultant hired to influence media and government decision makers. And I've been a contractor to federal, state and local government agencies. I know firsthand how hard it can be to get things done. But even this blows my mind. 

So Now What?

Here's hoping that in May folks will get their sh*t together and the government will start to enforce what they say is an important law that will help empower consumers to know what they are eating and perhaps make better decisions. We are the most overweight, sedentary generation in history. For the first time in 200 years kids born today will have a shorter life expectency than their parents. I am a firm believer that it's not too much to ask of our government and of the restaurant industry to tell us how many calories are in the food they sell so we can decide what we eat. I applaud the restaurants, like Starbucks, who continue to provide this information freely despite not yet being required to. And I am pissed at companies like Proper Food who hedge the issue and in my opinion are misleading their customers. I encourage you to ask the places you frequent for nutritional information and to challenge them if they don't offer it. 

Sources/Further Reading

Lazarus, David. "Restaurants skip required nutrition info; officials choose not to care." LA Times 28 April, 2014.

Behnam Dayanim & Daniel Liebowitz. "California’s Menu Labeling Law Takes Effect December 1, 2016, Months Ahead of FDA Enforcement." Paul Hastings, LLC Blog. November 30, 2016.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration Menu Labeling Requirements. 

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