Lynn Liddle knows what you’re thinking. The Domino’s Pizza executive and chair of the American Pizza Community—D.C. has a trade group for everything—has spent the past few years scrapping over Obamacare’s mandate for menu labeling at fast-food chain restaurants.
You might suspect that’s because Domino’s doesn’t want its customers to see how unhealthy the pizzas they’re eating are. She says you’re wrong—it’s because nobody goes to the physical store to order pizzas. So why make those businesses pay for something people won’t see?
The pizza industry lost the initial battle when the Food and Drug Administration released final regulations based on the Affordable Care Act’s menu-labeling provision at the end of last year. Pizza chains were required to post calorie information on their in-store menu boards or face civil or criminal penalties. They, along with the rest of the fast-food sector, must comply by Dec. 1 of this year—unless that deadline is delayed, as some believe it could be.
This is Big Pizza’s beef: People order pizza by phone or online. (Liddle pressed this reporter on how he procures his pies. Usually through a mobile app, for the record.) The industry estimates that only 10 percent—and Liddle said it could be even as low as 2 percent—of their customers are actually going to see the calorie information that they put up in stores. Because of that, they didn’t initially expect the FDA to mandate calorie counts on pizza places’ physical menus. But that’s what the final regulation requires.
“Very few people walk into a pizzeria, look up on a menu board and say, ‘Hmm, what will I have?’” Liddle said in an interview. “We don’t want to not do labeling. We do it already. We don’t want to get out of it. We want to do it. We want to do it in a way that makes sense for our consumers, that they can understand, and we want to do it in a way that won’t burden our small-business franchisees.”
Under the FDA rule, Liddle said, the small-business owner of a Domino’s franchise is going to have to spend a couple thousand dollars posting the information and it might not even help those select few customers, anyway. Domino’s has 34 million different pizza combinations; Liddle believes Pizza Hut has tens of millions more. The industry therefore argues that nobody is going to get anything out of the huge calorie ranges that its members are going to have to post on the menus at their stores to cover all the possibilities and comply with the rules.
So the American Pizza Community thinks it has a solution. It supports a bill introduced last month by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the No. 4 Republican in the House, and Democractic Rep. Loretta Sanchez that would revise the ACA’s menu rules. Restaurants where a majority of orders are made off-premises (read: pizza places) could post their calorie information online to comply with the law. That way, the industry argues, customers could get the information where they’re ordering. Domino’s put out a video last week of customers complaining about the regulations to try to build some momentum for the legislation.
The bill has 23 other co-sponsors, but no committee hearing has been scheduled yet, so its legislative future is uncertain. McMorris Rodgers and Sanchez’s offices did not respond to requests for comment. Pizza typically isn’t a major player on Capitol Hill, but Liddle said they were planning a fly-in of pizza executives to break bread with lawmakers about the issue.
Menu labeling is “probably our largest legislative issue,” Liddle said. “I think what we’re asking for is not really controversial “¦ I believe we can get it done.”
They are, however, going to be battling what Liddle said she “lovingly call(s) the food police,” the groups and individuals who strongly support Obamacare’s menu rules.
Sara Bleich, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University who has done research on menu labeling, said that the FDA rules, which were broader than many had anticipated, had been “exciting from a public health perspective.” They brought amusement parks and prepared food at grocery stores under their purview, along with the pizza and burger joints.
For now, the general consensus of the available studies, conducted in cities such as New York and Seattle that had menu labeling before Obamacare, is that the policy has limited or no effect on individual people’s behavior—though there is some counterevidence. But their real impact, according to Bleich’s research, seems to be that when restaurants are forced to be transparent about their food, they start making it healthier. She has documented a 10 to 12 percent decline in calories at some establishments since menu-labeling took effect in U.S. cities.
“The reason that is so important is that individual behavior is very resistant to change,” Bleich said. But if restaurants change instead, “that is a huge win for public health.”
That’s why the “food police” would oppose the carveout that Big Pizza wants. For one, not all Americans have Internet access and some therefore wouldn’t benefit from the industry’s proposal. Second, and perhaps more important: If the research holds, the newfound transparency will lead to healthier pizza regardless of what customers do. That is consistent with what Obamacare was trying to accomplish.
“The counter is basically transparency. Consumers should have uniform transparency,” she said. “Putting it on a menu board alongside prices is elevating in a way that the Internet is not.”