Arrow-right Camera
Go to e-Edition Sign up for newsletters Customer service
Subscribe now

This column reflects the opinion of the writer. To learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column, click here.

Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: McMorris Rodgers is busy taking down protections for consumers on pizza and privacy

UPDATED: Tue., April 11, 2017

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, center, learns to make a pizza from Domino’s Pizza Legislative Affairs Manager Ashley Coneff, left, and Domino’s area manager Sarah Anderson, right, Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015 at a Dominos Pizza restaurant in Spokane Valley. McMorris Rodgers, who is sponsoring a House bill to allow pizza chains like Domino’s to put nutrition information on the internet, talked with owners and employees at the Domino’s franchise Thursday. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, center, learns to make a pizza from Domino’s Pizza Legislative Affairs Manager Ashley Coneff, left, and Domino’s area manager Sarah Anderson, right, Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015 at a Dominos Pizza restaurant in Spokane Valley. McMorris Rodgers, who is sponsoring a House bill to allow pizza chains like Domino’s to put nutrition information on the internet, talked with owners and employees at the Domino’s franchise Thursday. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The harshest critics of our congresswoman, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, deride her as a do-nothing who has risen to leadership in a do-nothing legislative body – one that so far can’t manage to do the one thing it relentlessly boasted it would do: gut the evil Obamacare.

But that assessment of McMorris Rodgers is unfair, because it omits what she’s been busy undoing. She voted with congressional GOP majorities to block Obama-era rules that would require internet providers to get consumers’ permission to sell their data – standing up for corporate profits over citizen privacy. She’s also proposed legislation that would undo nutrition labeling requirements at pizza chains.

It’s called the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act, and it’s a big hit with Big Pizza.

The bill would common-sensically ease requirements on pizza chains for reporting calorie counts and nutritional information to customers, allowing the Pizza Huts and Domino’s of the world to evade rules that are about to become law for other chain restaurants.

These new regulations were part of the Affordable Care Act, which in and of itself makes it a pariah in the House of Representatives. But the battle over pizza labeling – while not the biggest issue on the country’s plate – is part of a decadeslong regulatory conflict, in which public health officials press to provide consumers with accurate, specific nutritional information about the food they’re sold and food sellers resist at every step, saying labeling will be onerous.

The labeling law is about to take effect, and some other food chains have already started posting nutritional information. Others are getting ready to. The pizza lobby, though, has continued working for a workaround, arguing in part that its offerings are uniquely complicated. Big national pizza chains – and their local franchisees – have lobbied and donated money to lawmakers, including McMorris Rodgers.

In a visit to Spokane in 2015, McMorris Rodgers showed up for a dough-handling photo-op at a Domino’s franchise. (One hopes she also spent time in any of the excellent, local, non-chain pizzerias of Spokane, of which there has been a renaissance.)

At that time, she said, “We’re not debating whether or not calorie information will be included. It is a matter of allowing for common-sense ways to fulfill the responsibilities.”

The bill hasn’t made much progress to this point, but the Washington Post reported last week that supporters are moving to insert it into an appropriations bill.

If it passes, consumers can look forward to the common sense of having less calorie information at pizza restaurants than they do at doughnut shops, supermarket delis and other places. Pizza stores that do a lot of delivery business will be able to post information just online, not in the restaurant itself. And we can all look forward to further hornswoggling about what constitutes a “serving.”

Common sense in pizza labeling, you see, allows restaurants to “reasonably” determine what constitutes a serving when telling customers how many calories are in one. It’s the kind of common sense that allows chains to define one sandwich as two servings. The kind of common sense that allows ice-cream companies to call a half a cup of Rocky Road one serving. Just imagine how many pieces of pizza might “reasonably” constitute a serving.

A third of a slice? A fifth?

Health officials support labeling as a way to help consumers make informed choices and encourage eateries to scale back on calories, salt and fat. They argue that seemingly small changes in calorie counts can have a big impact; the Post story noted that obesity experts say the problem often boils down to people eating an extra 100 calories a day.

“The pizza industry has fought this at each step of the way, and here we are four weeks away from when the law takes effect, and they’re still lobbying to keep this information from their customer,” Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, told the Post.

It’s true that pizza presents a challenge for labeling. Lots of toppings. Lots of options. It’s just too darn difficult, Big Pizza says, to add it all up and provide it to customers. Of course, this has been the cry from food companies at every stage of the labeling evolution: Too expensive. Too burdensome.

Government regulation of food labeling expanded significantly in the 1980s, in response to an explosion of shady health claims being made by manufacturers.

Louis Sullivan, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services at the time, said, “The grocery store has become a Tower of Babel and consumers need to be linguists, scientists and mind readers to understand the many labels they see.”

Food manufacturers – then and since – have tried to preserve the Tower of Babel. In a nation as fat as ours, consumers should have more accurate information, not more of this brand of “common sense.” In a nation as internet-reliant as ours, consumers should have more security, not more “common sense” that puts their privacy up for sale.

But labeling costs big companies money and effort, and selling your privacy makes them money. McMorris Rodgers could not stand by and do nothing.

As for the rest of us, she’s taking a line from Marie Antoinette: Let them eat pizza.

More from this author