Sunday, October 01, 2006

This week in history?

After the events of last week, who knows what the next seven days will bring? It’s unlikely to be noted in history books, but the recent past served up some important milestones, some as obvious as Grant’s Tomb, and others as little-noticed as the Menudo reunion album.

Topping the list would have to be New York City’s call for virtual elimination of trans fat from restaurant preparations. A corner was turned, a tipping point was reached, the last straw was slipped into the camel’s pack. Whatever cliché you want to use, this is when it’s all likely to change, with regulators pushing on restaurants, the eateries pressuring their vendors, and the suppliers giving their R&D folks a firm kick. The end result is going to be the phasing out of trans fats, if for no other reason than the publicity that was raised by the New York health department’s call for eliminating the artery clogger from commercial kitchens. The infallible new gauge of buzz, the Google search, shows 106,000 website mentions of the issue.

And that’s going to be the first domino that falls. Chicago has already said that it’s eying what happens in New York as a model for what it does. And, whether you love New York or hate it, it’s hard to argue that it’s not a bellweather for much of the nation. Where it goeth, often so goes the nation.

Strangely, despite all the attention that New York’s proposed ban has garnered, several aspects of the proposal have been overlooked, or certainly under-appreciated. Why, for instance, is there not more of a sympathetic outcry for banishing trans fat from retail shelves? Or the home kitchen? Why is the public—and the restaurant industry—so willing to accept that double standard?

The answer may be the second part of the health department’s proposal, which, as we’ve noted in our New York office, was largely overlooked even by the city’s celebrated hometown media. Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden also wants to mandate the posting of nutritional information on the menu boards of chain restuarants if the host concept already offers it as a handout or in some other form. It could be the stick that prods a sector of the trade to mute its protest to the ban proposal, which some insiders characterize as a done deal. If restaurants argue that they shouldn’t be subjected to the double standard of having to eliminate all but trace amounts of trans fats, when packaged-goods companies merely have to label the trans-fat content of their foods, then regulators might say, “Fine. Have it your way. Just provide the information, right on your menus. Along with info on cholesterol, calories and salt.”

Eliminating trans fat is a task that can be pushed back on suppliers. Menu labeling is a matter for restaurant accountants, and likely not one to make them happy.

The trans fat proposal may have accounted for plenty of headline ink, but it was hardly the lone newsworthy event of last week. Consider, for instance, the little-noticed tidbit about McDonald’s funding research into what makes children obese. About a year ago, I wrote a page-one story for Nation’s Restaurant News about the glut of research now being conducted on obesity, a cause du jour for academics, scientists and health officials. There’ll be no shortage of data on the topic. Yet McDonald’s is ponying up $2 million for more—no doubt in part to demonstrate concern, but perhaps also to make sure that all voices are heard in that authoritative discussion of obesity’s causes and possible remedies. As far as I can tell, it’s the first time that a restaurant chain has done such a thing, and certainly the only time that a quick-service operator has plunged into the world of health research to that degree.

The last week or so also brought the filing of three lawsuits against restaurants by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. As was noted here last Saturday, Starbucks is being sued by the federal agency for allegedly violating the rights of a psychologically troubled employee, as provided by the Americans with Disabilities Act. A McDonald’s franchisee in Denver was hit with a suit for purportedly allowing two teenaged female employees to be sexually harassed by male managers and employers. And then came the announcement of a suit against the Parker Palm Springs hotel in Palm Springs, Calif., for allegedly hiring only males at one of its restaurants.

Given the volume of suits that the EEOC files, three doesn’t exactly signal a trend. But to have three actions against restaurants disclosed in the same week seems unusual. Is the EEOC stepping up its use of lawsuits as an enforcement tool? Are restaurants’ rules slipping a little in this tougher economic environment? Or are employees willing to resort to legal action more readily because jobs are harder to come by?

We don’t know. But maybe next week will provide an answer.

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