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9th March

First Published in The New York Sun, March 9, 2007

By Andrew Wolf

There is a war going on, and New York is, once again, the front line. I’m referring not to the war on terror, but rather to the war on your right to decide for yourself what you eat.

The enemy here is not lurking in Afghanistan but right here in New York’s City Hall. The question is whether we will allow our mayor and City Council to do more damage to our freedom and our city’s economy that even Al Qaeda managed on September 11, 2001.

The battle being waged right now is over the content of the menu boards at fast-food restaurants in town. Under plans put forward by the city’s health department, fast-food restaurants that already voluntarily provide nutritional information will have to post calorie counts on the menu boards in a very prominent and visible manner. The new regulation mandates that the calorie count be displayed on the menu in type font that is as large “as the name or price of the item.”

So soon you’ll see signs like “Big Mac — 540 calories — $2.59.” While this will aid me in determining how I can get the most calories for my food dollar, the intent of course is the opposite, to scare folks into ordering “healthier” alternatives, to get the fewest calories for their dining investment.

Perversely, the restaurants that have been most forthcoming with nutrition information, the fast-food restaurants, are the ones that will be penalized by being forced to post the new signs. Already this is having unintended consequences as some establishments have removed the nutrition information that they already have been providing, lest they be forced to post the calorie count in the mandated government approved font.

This has led the chairman of the City Council’s Health Committee, Joel Rivera of the Bronx, to introduce a law to thwart the new regulations. The council member seems to be atoning for an earlier attack on our gastronomic liberties. That involved his desire to amend zoning regulations to control the number of fast-food eateries, a dangerous idea that he has not backed away from.

My suspicion is that the political class is looking for fresh sources of campaign dollars. The restaurant industry, one of the most important in our town, is a good candidate.

Those who can successfully straddle the fence will be rewarded by all sides. Mr. Rivera’s more sensible approach — at least on this issue — is to mandate that the fast-food joints simply make nutritional information available at the counter to any who want it.

The restaurant industry recognizes that the menu-board mandate is merely the tip of the iceberg. Once the calorie information is posted, look for an expansion to include fats. If you believe that the fast-food eateries will be the only ones to suffer new mandates, think again.

If we give them quarter, the same zealots who now ignore the rats biting your toes will be coming into restaurants like a culinary CSI, ordering meals, bagging them, and heading back to the lab to determine if the calories contained therein match the number on the menu. Once the fines start rolling in, we will be increasing the ranks of the food police faster than you can say “meter maid.” Expect your dining tab to reflect the costs that restaurateurs will now have to bear.

If I decide to go to Sparks to indulge in a steak, I don’t want to know how many calories there are in the 12-ounce fillet as opposed to the 16-ounce sirloin. If I feel my steak looks lonely on the plate and should be joined by Larry the Lobster, I don’t care how many more calories that will add. I dine out for the enjoyment of good food and wine. That is good for my health, my mental health.

© 2007 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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