The Salt Wars: Here Comes New York City's Next Food Fight

sodium salt warning

The logo of a salt shaker, meant to warn consumers of high sodium content in food, appears on an Applebees menu on Dec. 1, in New York City. The new sodium warning is the result of a city-wide law effecting restaurants with 15 or more locations and lets consumers know that an item has 2,300 milligrams of sodium or more in it.

Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images
  • Restaurant group vows to sue over city's new sodium rules
  • Panera signs on, cutting salt in its Bacon Turkey Bravo

New York City is facing an imminent challenge to a new rule requiring restaurant chains to post warnings on dishes with high amounts of salt, the latest battle in its campaign to improve public health on the fast-food front.

The city has already banned trans fats and required menus to list calorie counts, though it lost in its bid to limit the size of sugary drink servings. Now the National Restaurant Association says it’s planning to sue to block the sodium rule, which went into effect Tuesday.

The regulation places an “overly onerous and costly burden” on eateries already dealing with higher costs from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to create a $15 minimum wage for fast-food workers, the group said. It will file a legal challenge in New York state court this week, said Christin Fernandez, a spokeswoman. She declined to comment on the suit’s
grounds.

New York’s high salt content warning sign
New York’s high salt content warning sign
Source: Antonio D’Angelo/New York City Health Department via AP Images

The rule is “the tipping point for the hardworking men and women that own and operate New York’s restaurants,” said the Washington-based association, which represents more than 500,000 restaurants nationwide.

The city became the first municipality to require chains to post high-sodium warnings when its Board of Health approved the rule in September. It requires restaurants with at least 15 U.S. locations -- a group that accounts for about a third of the city’s restaurant traffic -- to identify menu items with more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium, the recommended daily limit for adults, and label them with a warning icon of a salt shaker in a triangle.

Blood Pressure

High sodium levels can lead to high blood pressure and increase the risks of heart attacks and strokes, the Health Department said, citing U.S. dietary guidelines and Institute of Medicine studies. One in three New York City deaths is due to heart disease, the department said. The amount of sodium at issue is equal to one teaspoon of salt, according to the Health Department’s guidelines for restaurants.

Nick Paolucci, a spokesman for the city’s law department, said New York is “confident that the Board of Health has the authority to enact this rule” and will address specific claims after the suit is filed. The department won’t start citing violators until March 1, when eateries will be subject to a $200 fine if they don’t comply.

The move follows decisions made by the administration of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg to ban trans fats, require menus to include calorie counts and limit the size of sugary sodas. Mayor Bill de Blasio has continued those efforts. Other cities in the U.S. and around the world have followed New York’s lead.

Still others will probably impose similar requirements, forcing restaurants to change nationwide, said Peter Muennig, an associate professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in Manhattan.

“If they want to sell their products in New York City,” Muennig said, “they can either choose to create a whole separate packaging and industry or just change everything they do. And usually they just change everything they do.”

Thinking Ahead

Some chains have beaten the city to the punch. Burger King removed the biscuit from its Ultimate Breakfast Platter in its New York City locations, taking the platter’s sodium content from 2,380 milligrams to 1,680 milligrams. The chain said its New York City restaurants no longer have any items that are over the rule’s threshold. Panera Bread said it cut the amount of salt in three of its menu items in New York to avoid having to warn customers about the sodium content. That included the Bacon Turkey Bravo sandwich, which the Center for Science in the Public Interest had listed in September among the fast-food menu items with more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium.

Subway Restaurants, on the other hand, will have to slap the salt shaker warning on foot-long versions of its Italian BMT, Spicy Italian and Chicken & Bacon Ranch Melt.

McDonald’s Corp. said it doesn’t have any items on its New York City menus that would qualify for the rule, and will continue to ”evolve its menu” to meet its customers’ needs. Starbucks Corp. said it has no such items either, and advocates consistent labeling on a national level.

The city could yet face a long food fight. The restaurant and beverage industries blocked Bloomberg’s bid to ban oversize sodas in 2014, when the state’s highest court ruled that the Board of Health lacked authority to impose the restriction. Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, had also asked restaurants and food manufacturers to voluntarily reduce the amount of salt in their menu items.

Changing Habits

It isn’t clear that the new sodium warning will get people to change their eating habits. A study published this month in the journal Health Affairs found that the percentage of people who noticed and factored in calorie counts while making their choices at fast-food chains in the New York City area declined with time. The study found no statistically significant change in the level of calories or other nutrients purchased, or in how often the survey respondents visited fast-food restaurants.

Labeling “remains an unproven strategy for improving the nutritional quality of consumer food choices,” it concluded.

The city’s Health Department disagreed, saying in a statement that the study’s findings apply “only to a predominantly low-income high-minority population.” The study confirms “that those who purchase food in fast-food restaurants with calorie postings are more likely to report seeing and using the calorie information to order food with fewer calories.”

Among black adults, 36 percent have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, a rate 50 percent higher than for whites, according to the Health Department.

The National Restaurant Association said the industry is committed to developing lower-sodium options without state mandates. It said the new sodium rule is unnecessary in light of federal regulations that will take effect next year. Those rules, part of the Affordable Care Act, would require chains of 20 restaurants or more to provide calorie counts and other nutritional information on menus.

“Local mandates like the one the Board of Health put forth unravel that uniformity,” the trade group said.

(An earlier version of this story corrected the spelling of Columbia University professor’s name.)

(Adds Restaurant Association statement in penultimate paragraph.)
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