The Ethics of Obesity Part One: CPK’s Gotcha Menu

First in a three-part series about the ethics of obesity

Restaurant CEOs have to determine what leadership, if any, their companies will take in America’s obesity crisis. More than two-thirds of Americans adults are categorized as obese or overweight; mounting medical research links eating habits to several preventable diseases. Estimates are that most Americans eat out at least 50% each week.

Restaurants’ leaders have a social responsibility to determine how they will do business differently while still fighting for market share and profitability.

Restaurateurs have been dealing with the issue of whether customers have the right to know the nutritional content of food they order. Some 30 cities, counties, and states believe that customers do, and have passed or are considering some form of menu labeling laws. California was the first state to pass a menu labeling law last year; July 1, 2009 some provisions went into effect and by 2011 all restaurant chains with more than 20 locations will be required to post calorie information on their menus. As of this month, both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House versions of the Health Care Reform bill include menu labeling provisions.

In the battle against obesity, we need leaders, not foot soldiers who retreat at the first scrimmage. This month, California Pizza Kitchen (CPK) retreated when it could have stayed a leader.  In July 2009 – not waiting until 2011 – its restaurants in CA printed menus with the calories of each item offered.  This month, CPK dropped the calorie counts from the menus.  Some customers had complained about their inclusion on the menu, said Larry Flax, CPK co-chief executive. Flax said he looks at the restaurant business as entertainment; so “why make the customer feel guilty?” CPK nutritional information is now available on the website and to those who ask, The Los Angeles Times reported.

Restaurants aren’t responsible for a customer’s guilt. If they play the role of enablers, or purveyors of denial, and offer food very high in calories and sodium, restaurants may entertain, but they risk losing trust. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, strokes, heart disease, and diabetes change lives or end lives. Our food choices contribute to those outcomes. While we are responsible for what we put in our mouth, we are making decisions with too little information.

Say you go to CPK with the intention of making a healthy food selection and order the Field Green Salad.  (In CA nutritional information is available separate from the menu, in other states you’d have to be premeditated and check the website before leaving home.) Would you guess it is 998 calories, and 805 mg of sodium? If you had figured that by choosing a salad, you had leeway to splurge on dessert and ate the white chocolate strawberry cheesecake (hey, it has fruit right?), would you guess it has 1,101 calories and 600 mg sodium?  Those two selections consume approximately a whole day’s recommended level of calories and salt.

While most people would say that if you go to McDonald’s and order a medium coke, medium fries and a quarterpounder, you aren’t making a healthy food selection, but that meal has the same calories in CPK’s Fiesta Green Salad. Gotcha.

CPK’s decision to drop nutrition information from its menu in California is a giant step in the wrong direction. Some customers may have complained, but studies show most people want that information to make better choices. CPK gave up a leadership role that they could have turned to a significant business advantage. Feeding customer denial is a toxic diet.

The Ethics of Obesity Part II will address, responsibility, McDonald’s, and the recently-released Sundance Film Festival award-winning movie “Precious.”

Gael O’Brien, November 30, 2009


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