Blog: Dean BestNew York chain restaurants ordered to use salt-warning symbol

Dean Best | 10 September 2015

New York City's Board of Health today (9 September) voted through plans for chain restaurants in the Big Apple to carry symbols on menus to highlight dishes containing more than the recommended daily limit of sodium.

The label will be the first of its kind in the US and is the latest initiative seeking to improve the health of consumers to come from public health officials in New York, if we think back to moves on artificial trans fats and calorie counts.

The unanimous vote was - perhaps unsurprisingly - applauded by health campaigners and disappointed restaurant owners. However, from 1 December, restaurants in New York City with 15 or more locations nationally will have to warn consumers about menu items that contain at least 2,300 milligrams of sodium.

The board said the regulation would affect "leading fast-food and fast-casual restaurants, which can easily make sodium information available".

The board said US consumers eat "excessive amounts of sodium". It pointed to a study that said more than 95% of American adults report consuming more than the maximum recommended daily limit each day. Citing figures from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the board said on average, American adults consume approximately 3,400 mg of sodium daily, well above the recommended limit.

"Sodium over-consumption is a reality in NYC as well," the board said in a statement. A 2010 study found average daily sodium consumption among New Yorkers was more than 3,200 mg, it noted.

The board took the restaurant sector to task, claiming: "The sodium content of fast food, in particular, appears to be on the rise." It said a 2013 study published in Public Health Nutrition examining the sodium content of menu offerings at "eight leading fast food chains found that the mean sodium content of menu items had increased more than 23% between 1997 and 2010".

"A similar study using receipt data collected in 2007 from over 6,500 transactions occurring at fast food chain outlets in NYC demonstrated that the sodium content of 20% of meals exceeded the daily recommended sodium intake limit. Today, nearly one-third of the sodium consumed by Americans comes from restaurant food," the board said.

It added: "Consumers typically underestimate the sodium content of restaurant food and are generally unaware of both sodium intake recommendations and the major sources of dietary sodium. It is imperative that consumers are readily able to identify menu items containing the recommended daily limit of 2,300 mg or more of sodium, because these items are clearly incompatible with recommendations regarding sodium consumption. The proposed consumer warning label will provide consumers with information about food items that contain exceedingly high sodium levels and will empower them to make well-informed decisions when making choices for themselves and their family members in the food retail environment."

As with any nutrition labelling or symbols, the key question is whether they will change consumer behaviour. Wouldn't a customer in, say, California's Pizza Kitchen wanting a meaty pizza already have an idea how much salt is in the food anyway? Would they care?

Michael Jacobson, president of consumer watchdog the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the symbol might cause some to think again.

"Today’s action by the New York City Board of Health will help consumers avoid some of the riskiest chain-restaurant offerings," Jacobson said. I hope that New York City’s move will spur restaurants to voluntarily lower sodium levels nationally and embolden public health authorities around the country to require sodium warnings on menus. The city’s action might even prompt the Food and Drug Administration to come down from its perch on the sidelines and issue its long-awaited voluntary sodium-reduction targets for the industry to consider."

The New York State Restaurant Association said the labels will be introduced ahead of broader federal regulations on nutrition labelling next year, meaning its members would have to change menus twice.

"It is disappointing the Department of Health has decided to go forward with sodium menu warning labels when more comprehensive federal regulations take effect next year. The establishments that fall under these new regulations will be forced to construct costly new menu boards in consecutive years," said Melissa Fleischut, the association's president and CEO, said. "This is just the latest in a long litany of superfluous hoops that restaurants here in New York must jump through. Every one of these cumbersome new laws makes it tougher and tougher for restaurants to find success."

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