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Why you could get arrested for studying restaurant calorie labeling

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If you ask any health policy wonk about the impact of calorie labeling at restaurants, you'll likely hear an unenthusiastic sigh. Many of the studies and meta-analyses, after all, suggest that calorie labeling has had little impact on people's food choices.

What really gets researchers riled up, however, is how difficult it is to even study this question. Jason Block, a physician and researcher at Harvard Medical School, says he's faced intimidation and the threat of arrest during his attempts to study menu labeling. Yes, menu labeling.

For his research, Block and his co-investigators had to collect receipts and survey people who were going into and coming out of restaurants in New England. This involved standing outside popular chains — McDonald’s, Dunkin' Donuts, Burger King, Wendy’s, KFC, and Subway — and soliciting patrons about whether they noticed the calorie labeling in the restaurant, and whether it had any impact on their food choices.

Restaurant owners and management staff didn't always take kindly to their work.

"About a third of the time, we faced difficulty," Block told me. "We'd be told, 'You can't be on our private property, we don't allow solicitation.'" Most chain restaurants have anti-solicitation rules and would restrict the researchers from collecting data "even if it’s something they didn't have a true problem with," Block said.

Then there were times when things got heated. "Sometimes management staff were incredibly hostile," Block said. "It occasionally rose to the level where they called the police." Police would arrive and tell the researchers to leave. "We didn't have much recourse," Block said.

The work was most difficult in suburban areas: The chains were usually situated in the middle of parking lots, with limited public space where researchers could access patrons. This was quite different from studying the policy in cities like New York, where menu labeling was first introduced in 2008 and restaurants are generally located right on public sidewalks.

"I don't want it to come across as sounding like an excuse for why we don't find effects of policies," he said. Most of the time, after all, Block and the other researchers were able to conduct their surveys as planned. "But this research turns out to be not very easy to do."