I thought we had time to repeal ObamaCare before it would affect my health.  Everyone is talking about how 2012 is our chance to repeal ObamaCare before it goes into effect – since the individual mandate to purchase insurance isn’t scheduled to hit until 2014.  Even if the Supreme Court overturns the law on Thursday – they will be too late.

The calorie labeling mandate, which requires all chain restaurants to offer essentially the same menu and post calorie counts for all standard items, has already impacted my life.  And it has affected the 1 in 133 Americans who, like me, have Celiac disease.

Celiac disease is a genetic disorder that causes the body to attack itself whenever the digestive system encounters gluten.  Gluten is found in wheat, barley, rye, and spelt.  The only fix for Celiac is a lifelong gluten – free diet.  No pasta, bread, pretzels, cake, and so on.  It’s not the worst thing in the world.  But yes, I dream of strawberry Pop-Tarts.  Celiac causes all kinds of havoc in the digestive system and nervous system, causing malnutrition and severe pain.  Recovery can take years.  A precious few restaurants have the knowledge and ingredients to cater to gluten-free clientele.  Here’s where things get worse:

Section 4205 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 requires restaurants and similar retail food establishments with 20 or more locations to list calorie content information for standard menu items on restaurant menus and menu boards. (Source:  The FDA)

Anything on a menu for more than ninety days in any location is “standard” in the eyes of the health care law.  This means that it must be accompanied by a calorie count on any menu where it is offered.  Because multiple restaurants in a chain offer gluten-free items that are “substantially the same,” the bill assumes that all restaurants in that chain offer those items.  If a dish is “standard” at one location, the law assumes that it is “standard” at all locations.   That item’s nutrition info must now be available at all locations – which means that the item itself must also be available at all locations.  

The bill offers exemptions for custom orders – “Hold the olives, please” – but it offers nothing at all for “One of our restaurants in every major city will stock gluten-free bread, and will have a separate fryer for those items.”  It is MUCH cheaper for the restaurant to quit the gluten-free menu altogether than it is to expand that menu to every single location.  Here’s why:

When supply of gluten-free food is high, demand will still be small since so few people eat gluten-free.  High supply and low demand means very low prices – prices that are too low for companies to sell at a profit. It’s just not profitable for restaurants to have gluten-free ingredients (which are more expensive than the wheat-based stuff) in every kitchen.

Next, the company would have to incur the cost of testing these items for their nutritional content.  “There are 34 million ways to order a Domino’s Pizza. So, thanks to President Obama’s national health care law, the chain’s franchisees may have to spend more than $5 million attempting to squeeze calorie data next to every one of their menu items” – Source

This stipulation is designed with the best of intentions.  The First Lady is pushing a huge campaign for health.  But she’s messing with the free market – and that’s why her good intentions are having negative consequences.  Also, “First Lady” is a title – not an office.  Her name wasn’t on the ballot in 2008.  Michelle Obama holds a position of honor in American society – but she does not hold any authority whatsoever to make laws.  Her intentions are noble.  Her actions are causing real problems.

Detractors will be quick to point out that the labeling law only applies to companies with twenty or more locations.  To them, I say this:  How many mom-and-pop restaurants know about gluten?  About the finer points of avoiding cross-contamination?  That simply picking the croutons out of a salad absolutely does not make it gluten-free?  That cooking rice in the same pot used to cook spaghetti will put me asleep for eighteen hours and in pain for days afterward?  Take it from a girl who knows:  Not many.  Awareness is great, but it can’t fix the problem here – small restaurants with small customer bases do not have enough Celiac customers to make investing in special ingredients and equipment worthwhile.  Gluten-free bakeries are even rarer (but I would like to extend my thanks to one of those rare gems, Gluten Free Cutie, for their time in helping me to understand the issue of Celiac in society.)

The double-whammy of standardization and caloric testing means that gluten-free is quickly becoming unprofitable for restaurants who used to offer it.  The OUTBACK near my hometown just cancelled its extended gluten-free menu on June 11th (though the gluten free items on the original menu will continue to be offered).  I called the restaurant and was told about how the cost of standardization and testing would impact consumers:  “You would be paying, like, thirteen dollars for a gluten-free Bloomin’ Onion.  Obviously, that’s not gonna fly with customers or with Outback.”  Outback’s corporate headquarters did not respond to requests for comment.  California Pizza Kitchen no longer offers gluten-free pizza crust.  Starbucks discontinued their gluten-free cake, opting to replace it with another company’s fruit and nut bars (which come labeled from the supplier.)    These companies may just be the first dominos in line to fall.  And speaking of Domino’s, the pizza chain just came out with a gluten-free crust…along with a disclaimer that says that it probably contains gluten.

It’s worth mentioning that the free-er market was being quite kind to Celiacs with all these items before the government stepped in.  It’s not right for government, intentionally or not, to cheat any group of people out of a safe meal at a place that’s willing to provide it.  Instead of freeing up a system that has been meddled in far too much (the corn subsidy, and the cheap high fructose corn syrup that seems to be in EVERYTHING is a prime example), the Left has pushed for even more regulation of food.

When governments try to help Celiacs, they usually fail.  And they fail hard.  The FDA was supposed to have set gluten labeling guidelines for all packaged food…in 2008.  Four years later, we’re still debating this via online submissions to the FDA.  What is there to debate?  When I have to determine when something is or is not safe to eat, I certainly don’t have four years to decide.  Things are even worse across the pond:  The EU encourages companies to label items that are gluten free.  The EU allows food labels to say “gluten free” even when the items contain small amounts of wheat starch!  Would you feel safe eating something “poison free” that listed a small amount of cyanide as an ingredient?  No thank you very much!

What DOES work for Celiac patients is personal responsibility.  Celiacs must follow a strict diet, and cheating on that diet has consequences that are, quite literally, painful.  The responsibility for managing my Celiac lands on me – and only me.  I research food, medicine, and cosmetics like my life depends on it (it does).  And if, by chance, I end up in a restaurant where the only gluten-free food is the ketchup bottle on the table (it happens)…well, I just order some sweet tea, enjoy the company, and look forward to a snack when I get home.  I don’t need the government’s help to manage this condition.

Gluten-free eaters need a free market.  So while the First Lady distills health down to calories – ignoring the diverse dietary needs that Americans have, and implying that we’re too dumb to keep ourselves healthy – I’ll be over here, enjoying every last delicious calorie of some gluten free cake.