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I remember boring rainy days as a child when my brothers and I would roam the house looking for something to do. We would open the refrigerator a dozen times hoping for a miracle that something exciting would have magically arrived since we had last opened it 10 minutes earlier. At the end of all patience, one of us would proclaim, "there's nothing to eat."
In the wake of the "tobacco wars", opportunistic lawyers have sued "big food" with the same vengeance that made them millions of dollars. It began small, hot coffee spilled on drive-thru patrons, transfats in Oreos, but incrementally, "big law" has targeted "big food".
For the record, I do not smoke. I also believe transfats, consumed in large quantities are not healthy; however, the rights of individuals to consume legal products should not be challenged in the courts. At the heart of many of these lawsuits are well-intended people that want the children in our society to have better nutrition, I share that goal. Unfortunately, good intentions will fuel additional legal actions and the pressure groups will continue to dictate to Americans what to eat.
Calorie counts on menus seems like a good idea -- give people the information so they can make an informed decision regarding what items to buy.
Here is the problem: Restaurant chains now spend millions of dollars to determine calorie counts and change menu boards. The boards publically declare standards. What if heavy-handed Hank, the substitute line cook, puts too much mayo on a sandwich? An attorney can buy that product and send it to a lab for analysis. That sandwich could exceed the acceptable range publicly declared on the menu board. The operator is now guilty of "truth in menu" claims and open to court action.
What began with good intentions, informing the public, sets up the restaurant industry for disciplinary action. This is additional risk exposure to restaurant operators. There is so much to concern an operator: federal and state regulations, food safety, labor relations, cross-contamination and now calorie counts.
At some point, operators and entrepreneurs may determine that the risk/reward factor is too high and will decline to open additional restaurants. If you think I am stretching, this has already occurred in California where several large chains have stated they will not open additional stores in the state due to heavy regulation. The multi-nationals target Asia and other developing areas for their future growth, partially due to this phenomenon.
A culture of litigation is destroying our country. If companies fear to produce what consumers want, the only organizations that will remain in business will be huge food conglomerates that will be able to spread the risk over many business units. These companies will be the exact targets of lawsuits because of their "deep pockets." Left unchecked and unchallenged, the momentum of these suits could leave many people staring into empty storefronts, repeating the phrase from my childhood, "There's nothing to eat."
The foodservice community needs to protect itself so we can continue our work. We need to work together to educate the public that restaurants exist to fulfill the needs and desires of the consuming public. I welcome your thoughts.
Wishing you success in pizza – Ed
Ed Zimmerman is a pizza industry veteran and President of The Food Connector. His almost four decades of foodservice experience includes food manufacturing and distribution leadership, food industry technology, marketing services and restaurant and grocery operations management.
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