The Ministry of Wellness

As a restaurateur, I've been following the health care debate especially attentively. I have already determined that the health care bill, if passed, will cause a significant reduction in our net profits -- depending on how many employees we can shed. After reading the fifty or so pages of the Senate "Affordable Health Choices Act" devoted to "Employers' Responsibilities," I still have no idea whether my businesses are "small" or "large" -- but I am pretty sure that it will cost me $100-$150 a month in bookkeeping, accounting, and payroll service fees just to find out. Again, I suspect that there will be a distinct incentive to shed employees in order to stay "small."

But what really caught my attention was a part of the Senate bill called "Nutrition Labeling of Standard Menu Items at Chain Restaurants" (Section 325, Subtitle C, "Creating Healthier Communities," of Title III, "Improving The Health Of The American People"). This section requires nutritional content labeling at any point of sale, as well as labeling indicating "a succinct statement concerning suggested daily calorie intake as specified by the Secretary by regulation." Other language in this section gives the secretary the power to determine any nutrient that must be disclosed by regulation. 

Our businesses are devoted to making people happy. How are we going to do this while confronting them with written admonishments, succinct or not, from the Secretary of Wellness at every turn?

"More fries? Sorry sir, according to the Ministry of Wellness charts, you have exceeded your recommended calorie allotment today."

"A soft drink refill? Forget it, kid -- you know the Secretary has determined that stuff is bad for you. Here, read her guidelines on Improving Public Health and quit bothering me."

On nearly every page of the Senate bill is some phrase giving the Secretary of Health and Human Services the statutory power to determine, regulate, and generally micromanage anything related to public health. This is not just insurance, doctors, or hospitals -- but food. Think of the size of the bureaucracy (unionized, of course) that will be needed to write and promulgate these regulations. It is not a stretch to imagine the day when the secretary, at the urging of the department's grant partner, The Center for Science in the Public Interest, will regulate the fat, salt, and sugar content of everything we eat and drink. It's bad enough that the FDA was poised to start regulating food as though it were a controlled substance. Now Congress is codifying food and menu regulations in a health insurance bill? We could soon be living in a sugar-free, low-fat, lactose-intolerant world courtesy of the food police and your local nanny -- I mean, congressperson

It will be argued that the Senate bill's menu-labeling provisions will apply only to chains with twenty or more units. Want to bet? This is just the beginning. Wolfgang Puck or The Olive Garden, elite or prole -- it won't matter. When you go out to eat in the not-so-distant future, you will have to run a gauntlet of nutritional charts and dietary guidelines just to order. Most restaurants will need a certified nutritionist on call just to ensure compliance. Restaurants will be in the curious position of both trimming jobs to avoid fees and taxes and tacitly discouraging the consumption of the products we produce. 

Oh, you'll be able to fulfill your daily nutritional requirements -- you just might not like how it tastes.  

My advice?  Enjoy yourselves while you still can. The coming message from the Ministry of Wellness is "Eat your spinach. It's good for you, damn it."
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