Count Me Out – thoughts about putting calories on restaurant menus

This rather obscure image is currently heading the No to counting calories facebook page, grabbed at the last minute. But it is relevant: a cap from a bottle of exquisite Glenillen milk. Older readers will instantly recognise the cream on the underside of the cap, recalling an era before homogenisation, you know, when milk actually tasted good.

When I recently learned of plans to bring in legislation requiring restaurants to itemise the calories in each dish on their menus, my initial reaction, rightly or wrongly, was one of absolute disgust at what I perceived to be idiocy in the extreme. Most alarmingly, it seemed this process was being shepherded through with almost zero public debate. I began to tweet about it but Twitter leaves little room for nuance in any debate so I established a facebook page, hoping it would become a forum for debate and a place in which others could add links to other resources of information.

The reaction has proven to me that there are an awful lot of people out there who care about the issue – and from both sides of the divide. Furthermore, some of my initial thoughts on the subject have provoked further questions, many aimed directly at me to which I would like to respond. I have no wish to helm any ‘movement’; there are plenty of people in this country infinitely more qualified than I to fulfill such a role. I simply wanted to see interested parties in this country (which, ideally, would be every single citizen of the island who eats food) become aware of what was transpiring and then being allowed to contribute their tuppence worth. The issue is simply too important to be allowed pass into law without some very rigorous examination. This is the first step of a more in-depth attempt at explaining my position.

Transparency

“This train is leaving the station,” Dr Reilly said, adding, “if industry doesn’t comply, we will legislate”. Irish Times, Feb 2nd, 2012

On February 2nd, Minister Reilly announced a public consultation on how best to put calorie information on menus. A ‘public consultation’ is a process whereby the views are sought from the public on matters affecting them to be then  taken into consideration when making a decision or drafting policy or legislation. But in this case the ‘consultation’ element is token to say the least, lasting a mere 27 days and with many unanswered questions about its integrity. I live in a world of food, sometimes professionally, always personally, and yet I never heard of this ‘consultation’ through any formal channels. Any restaurauteurs I have been in touch with learned of this solely through the grapevine or through their local branch of the Restaurants Association of Ireland. Surprising, when you consider how much effort the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) normally puts into publicising what it is up to.

Then there is the consultation itself, in the form of surveys aimed at the general public and the catering industry, all conducted by the FSAI. The surveys are not asking the Irish citizen whether or not it is a good idea to list calories on menus but what form should it take ie this is a fait accompli, decided already by those who purportedly ‘know best’. Some of the questions are rather cynically skewed to provide the answers that are being sought to bolster a predetermined result. Try this one for size:

How would you like to see the calorie information displayed on foods that are meant for sharing?

Option one: The calories for the full pizza are shown along with the number of portions it contains. For example a 13.5″ pizza has 2690 calories and contains 4 portions

Option two: The amount of calories in a portion is shown along with the number of portions in a pizza. For example one portion of pizza contains 672 calories and there are 4 portions in a full pizza

As a citizen of this country who will be affected by this legislation, where is the option, the box for me to tick for me to say neither of the above, I don’t support the idea for one single moment.

Maybe someone can prove to me the wrongheadness of my thinking which I would then happily own up to. But at the very least there should be a loud and very open public debate on the issue, involving informed opinion from all sides with the public allowed their democratic right to some part in the process of deciding ‘what is best for them’. Personally speaking, I have very little faith in the idea of leaving it solely to the Department of Health and the FSAI to provide the expertise to justify this policy. At the very least, we should be allowed to access the inner workings of this consultation process.

For example, was there any engagement with Eating Disorder (ED) experts who could point out how negatively such a policy would impact on people with ED. Or could somebody point out to the scientists of the FSAI, now apparently in the business of offering nutritional advice to professional cooks, via the online documentation, that ‘low-fat’ alternatives often end up with more calories than the normal fat option due to the additives, stabilisers etc introduced to compensate for the removal of fat.

There is a small aside, buried within the the FSAI Draft Technical Guide for Food Businesses

The FSAI is exploring possible ways to help food businesses put calories on menus.

All of the possibilities listed below are subject to the FSAI securing special funding to help food businesses put calories on their menus.

Are the FSAI rushing through with this to meet a European structural funding deadline? Or has funding already been allocated providing certain conditions are met eg a ‘public consultation’? Is it a case of more focus being put on securing funding than on consideration of the policy for which funding will be used? More haste, less speed and a very full and open public consultation seems the logical way to approach such drastic policy legislation.

In President Michael D Higgin’s just-published book, Renewing the Republic, he writes of an administrative (State) failure to communicate the truth to all: “Many do not have equal access to the story; rather it is for those who work in the sector.”

Preventing debate, hindering and obfuscating on the process of ‘consultation’, the better to railroad this through as quickly as possible, counts as another insult to the democratic rights of the Irish public and very pronounced black eyes for the Minister, his dept and the FSAI, part of an administration that made great play in the runup to the general election of the dawning of a new age of State transparency.

Why not read the documentation on the FSAI site and contribute by filling in the surveys. I’m not sure if they really care about your opinion but they might care about an awful lot of opinions.

In the words of the great carrot-muncher, Bugs Bunny, ‘that’s all for now, folks!’

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One comment on “Count Me Out – thoughts about putting calories on restaurant menus

  1. So refreshing to read your article, sometimes I feel that people make decisions without thinking… Calories counting in the restaurants will only increase eating disorders and make people more obsessed with food, thanks for writing it

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