Saturday, March 10, 2007

Setting back international relations

If you had any doubts, it’s now official: New York is the center of the universe. The European Union, the confederacy of all those nations whose cheese exports we had to learn in grade school, has turned to the city for advice on banning smoking and trans fats. It’s just a matter of time until the French are asking Gotham-ites for a good bread recipe.

This is a matter of button-popping pride for those of us who wonder what really does play in Peoria—or, to be truly New Yorker-ly about it, who ponder why anyone would care. But the smugness is tempered by concerns about the representative we dispatched to meet with the EU’s health commissioner, Markos Kyprianou. The Big Apple's counterpart, Thomas Frieden, has lately been running neck-and-neck with Lord Voldemort and shower mold in his estimation among local and national restaurateurs--and not a few rank-and-file New Yorkers. Yet he was tapped for a turn as diplomat. We can only hope they didn’t ask him about rat control.

Truth be told, a few of his other efforts haven’t been going so well, either. As we reported on, one of the most celebrated initiatives from Frieden’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene backfired miserably last week. He should consider himself lucky that more restaurant chains didn’t realize what had struck White Castle and Wendy’s, though the latter stopped just a tad short of getting all the way through the loophole. Otherwise, Frieden would have had a full-scale scandal on his hands.

What those two chains figured out was a way to beat Frieden’s pendate requirement that restaurant chains disclose the calorie counts next to each choice on a menu or menu board. The new regulation, a rider on the health department’s edict to limit trans fat as of next July 1, mandates that the info be posted roughly as large as the prices, so customers can more readily handle their own waist management. The obligation is binding on any multi-unit operation that had the caloric information available in other forms, like in a brochure or on a website, as of March 1.

Late in February, Wendy’s and White Castle had an idea. (Curiously, both are headquartered in the Columbus, Ohio, area, which I believe is somewhere near Peoria.) Why not stop making that information available and beat the system?

So they quietly yanked the calorie information off the posters they erected in their New York restaurants some time ago to do voluntarily what the minions of Voldemort—er, Frieden—had set out to do by fiat. Asked by Nation’s Restaurant News deputy managing editor Paul Frumkin if the evasive action would succeed, the department gave a definite no. Those chains still offer the calorie information via their websites and the placards in stores elsewhere, don’t they? Well, then, the department said, they’ve met our criteria of having the information available. No one specified it had to be available in New York.

It looked like a noteworthy but somewhat foolhardy gambit on the part of Wendy’s and White Castle, since now they had to contend with a backlash of negative publicity along with the posting obligations. But then White Castle informed Frumkin that it had indeed retracted the information every where it had appeared, including from its website and stores outside of the city. Another call to the health department yielded an indication that White Castle may have successfully dodged the mandate, though NRN was the only publication to note the success of the maneuver.

Just to recap: White Castle had been providing the information Frieden’s posse had wanted customers to see. It just wasn't on the menu boards of units in New York. Now, because White Castle felt the menu-posting mandate would be too costly and cumbersome to meet, calorie information won’t be available at all to customers.

And this is the man to whom all of Europe is turning for advice on how to regulate its restaurants.

Maybe we could eventually give them Peoria, as a peace offering.

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