Boris Johnson’s government plans to introduce legislation forcing restaurants and cafes with over 250 employees to put calorie counts on their menus, and has not ruled out extending the policy to independent restaurants in the future. The government first proposed such labelling in 2018, so, despite the timing of the announcement, it does not really form part of Johnson’s apparent epiphany in the wake of going to intensive care with COVID-19; according to a House of Commons briefing paper published this month, there are only 8,000 such businesses in total in the whole of the country.
The government’s messaging emphasises that the legislation is designed to promote an “informed decision” to “fight obesity,” offering diners greater transparency in what they are eating by providing a numerical measurement that excludes nutritional composition. It, like the quickly forgotten suggestion from a 2019 public health report that eating on public transport should be banned, blends paternalistic thinking with the personal responsibility messaging and military language that has been a hallmark of both obesity and COVID-19 messaging from the government.
Some large restaurant and pub groups, like McDonald’s and JD Wetherspoon, already put calories on their menus, and the practice is legally established in the U.S., where studies have found that it has minimal to negligible impact on public health. When the government announced the proposals two years ago, eating disorder recovery charity Beat said that “evidence shows that calorie labelling exacerbates eating disorders of all kinds,” emphasising that treating nutrition and health as a maths problem is an extremely reductive approach, and creates another potential stressor when going out to eat is already a potentially fraught situation. This week, the charity wrote that “reducing people’s weight to a matter of individual choice and ignoring the many complex factors involved” has been a hallmark of previous obesity policy. This does not look to have changed with this one.
The legislation remains an idea for now, with no timeline for its being brought to the House of Commons.