As a restaurant customer, you naturally expect that the items you’re ordering off the menu are what’s going to show up—exactly as advertised—on your plate. Unfortunately, it seems like it’s increasingly difficult these days to feel confident that restaurants are actually delivering what they say they are. Stories of misleading menu descriptions make the news with alarming regularity, involving everything from so-called “local” items actually coming from thousands of miles away to cheaper meats and seafood being substituted for the premium versions that were advertised. And if you’re thinking, “Aren’t there laws against this kind of thing?”, the answer is that there are, but enforcing them is more complicated than you might think. Read on to learn more.
What Are Truth in Menu laws?
Most states, cities, and municipalities have laws in place meant to protect consumers and to ensure that, if a restaurant is advertising and charging for a particular product, then that particular product is what’s delivered. These laws are sometimes—though not always—referred to as Truth in Menu laws, and they are akin to the broader set of laws, known as Deceptive Trade Practices, which are applied to litigate a range of issues, from misleading menu claims to supplements.
Interestingly, Truth in Menu laws have been around for nearly a century. New York City, for example, has had Truth in Menu laws since 1922. Not surprisingly, these types of laws have historically been more common in larger cities, where restaurants tend to be more regulated, and rules scrutinizing restaurant menus tend to be tighter.
Why is proper enforcement of Truth in Menu laws so challenging?
As Sally Greenberg, the director of the National Consumers League (NCL), pointed out in a 2016 article in Eater, “It’s one thing to have a law, it’s another thing to enforce it.” (The National Consumers League is a nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to improving the lives of consumers and workers. NCL is a prominent supporter of stronger labeling and Truth in Menu laws.) At present, the enforcement of Truth in Menu laws is challenging for a number of reasons:
The laws themselves vary greatly.
One of the biggest challenges of Truth in Menu laws is the lack of uniformity. The laws themselves can vary a great deal depending on the jurisdiction, not only by state or county, but even from one town to another. This lack of consistency makes it difficult for consumers, restaurant operators, and local enforcers alike to know when there are issues with regulatory compliance.
The focus is not always on misleading advertising.
Today, it’s most often health departments that are tasked with conducting Truth in Menu investigations at restaurants. Not surprisingly, this means that the focus is usually on sanitation (for example, claims related to kosher menus), rather than on misleading advertising that doesn’t necessarily compromise health.
The terminology can be confusing.
Vague or confusing terminology is another aspect that makes the enforcement of Truth in Menu law more complicated. While there are specific definitions for some of the terms you’re likely to see on a restaurant menu (like “organic” and “cage-free”), other terms (most notably “natural”), have not been formally defined by the FDA, so they don’t necessarily have any legal or regulatory meaning. This can lead to vocabulary being used in a misleading way without actually flouting any laws. For example, the vague term “fresh-squeezed” might lead some customers to believe that the juice in question has been freshly squeezed on a restaurant’s premises. However, the restaurant could potentially argue that the term refers to juice that has been freshly squeezed off the tree and then frozen.
The onus is usually on the customer.
When it comes to determining whether Truth in Menu laws are being violated, it’s usually up to customers (or sometimes a whistleblower or a third-party interest group) to raise the red flag about the disconnect between what was advertised and what was delivered. The challenge here is that, in the case of many Truth in Menu violations, it’s difficult for customers to know that there’s a problem. For example, without undertaking significant background research on a restaurant and its suppliers, how is the average customer supposed to know whether the chicken breast in their chicken burger is actually organic?
How could enforcement of Truth in Menu laws be improved?
As recommended by a number of groups, one way to bring more control and cohesiveness to the task of policing and enforcing Truth in Menu laws would be to create a larger, standardized organization charged with inspecting restaurants (in a similar vein to the FDA and the USDA). For example, in the UK, a blanket government agency called the Food Standards Agency has jurisdiction over restaurant food industry inspections, including the inspection of menus and labels. In addition, clarifying the labeling and certification practices for certain foods (such as premium or highly sought-after items) can help to provide more of a context for diners attempting to identify deceptive practices at restaurants.