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This week’s head-spinning moments: Sanity’s 4 deaths

Let this week be remembered for posterity as the time common sense gave up and checked into the Spock Institute of Logic for some R&R. While sanity was recuperating, the restaurant industry slogged through developments that showed a weakening of rudimentary cognitive skills, strangely all on the part of public officials.  Among the abilities they muffed:

Reading a calendar

Restaurateurs have been working for more than five years on compliance with federal menu-labeling requirements. New York City regulators decided Wednesday that 11 weeks is all the time local operators need to meet a first-of-its-kind disclosure requirement peculiar to their menus. Starting Dec. 1, or 80 days after passage, Big Apple branches of restaurant chains with at least 15 units nationwide will have to flag menu items containing more than a teaspoon of sodium.

The process is a little more challenging than merely slapping a warning decal on listings of dishes that taste particularly salty. The Board of Health estimates that 10 percent of the selections on chains’ menus will warrant the alert. But which items are those? How will all the warning icons fit on a packed menu board? And what about choices with a question mark, like a pizza served with the customer’s choice of any three stoppings?

The timing doesn’t make sense.

Sending and receiving emails

Didn’t it occur to anyone on New York’s Board of Health to check with federal authorities about the labeling requirements being finalized by the Food and Drug Administration? Might the final presentation rules conflict with New York City’s guidelines for the salt warnings? Have the regulators even reached out?

At the very least, wouldn’t it be more sensible to join forces so chain restaurants in New York would have to adjust their menus and menu boards only once?  All that were needed were a few emails back and forth. We would have provided the addresses.

Thinking beyond today

Even with a clarification of how nutrition information has to be disclosed on menus, new technology could pose a problematic gap in the U.S. guidelines. Ask McDonald’s executives in Australia, where 700 stores ran afoul of the nation-continent’s labeling requirements because of a switch to high-tech new menu boards.

The screens were programmed to rotate food and beverage choices, a technique gaining popularity here in the States as a means of presenting an extensive menu without taxing customers. Only a handful of items are shown on the menu board at any given time, and the highly visual presentations are easier for the patron to comprehend and process. It takes less time to look at a picture than it does to read all the lunch possibilities.

But Australian authorities felt the rotation of items provided too little time for the nutritional information about each one to sink in. The data is displayed for only seven seconds.  Before a customer could absorb it, the item and its profile were gone.

Flashing through the selections also complicates comparisons of all the options’ nutritional value. There’s no static list of every product and its breakdown. The information has to be remembered by customers and compared in their heads.

McDonald’s has promised to alter the displays by the end of the month.

Judging Jimmy Carter

The former president famously admitted in a Playboy interview that he had lusted in his heart for women other than his wife. By the new standards of the National Labor Relations Board, that would have been more than enough to damn him as a philanderer.

As franchisors are learning this week in their struggle to understand the Board’s redefinition of “joint employer,” action isn’t necessary to have the label applied to them. The mere possibility of interfering in franchisees’ relations with employees could be sufficient to earn the tag, even if the option is never exercised, according to Maury Baskin of the Washington, D.C., law firm Littler Mendelson P.C.

The NLRB applied the label to Brown Ferris Industries, a waste management firm, in part because it had the option of dismissing contracted employees who actually worked for an outside staffing firm. If it didn’t like one of the supplied staffers, or felt they posed a danger to customers or co-workers, BFI could apparently ask the worker to leave.

If a restaurant-franchise contract permits the dismissal of franchisees’ employees who are damaging the brand, the franchisor could find itself regarded a joint employer in NLRB actions brought against the franchisee, Baskin said.

“You don’t have to take the action, just have it available to you,” he said.

Being held accountable because of the potential for action? Oh, yeah, that makes sense.

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