The New York State Supreme Court has ruled that chain restaurants in New York City can be fined after Mar. 1 for failing to post sodium warnings on certain items on their menus.
The ruling is a win for the city's Board of Health, which unanimously passed a rule last September that requires chains with 15 or more locations nationwide to print a salt-shaker warning icon next to menu items containing 2,300 or more milligrams of sodium.
"If your meal has so much sodium that it merits a salt shaker on the menu, then – for the sake of your health – order something else," Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement released after the ruling came down Wednesday.
Mandated salt warnings on menus are intended to make New Yorkers more aware of the link between excessive salt in their diets and high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, according to health officials.
"I believe that the New York City salt label [on menus] does protect public health," Thomas Merrill of the Department of Health & Mental Hygiene tells us. He says it gives people the information they need to make informed choices.
The ruling is a defeat for the National Restaurant Association, which sued the city over the salt warning icon rule after it went into effect on Dec. 1. The NRA argued that it amounted to an unnecessary, arbitrary and costly mandate.
The trade association has signaled it may appeal. "We will be exploring all of our legal options moving forward," says NRA spokeswoman Christin Fernandez.
Meanwhile, health advocates cheered. "This is a huge victory for public health," says Jim O'Hara, director of health promotion policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Americans are consuming too much sodium, and it's not coming from salt shakers, O'Hara says. Most of the sodium we consume is already added to our food, whether its in the processed foods we buy in the grocery or the meals we're served in restaurants.
The latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released in January, recommend limiting sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams (about 1 teaspoon) per day. Yet Americans are consuming close to 3,440 milligrams a day on average.
So, what are the huge sodium bombs on chain restaurant menus? Friendly's has a Balsamic, Mozzarella Chicken Salad with 2,845 mg of sodium. CSPI points to Panera Bread's Bacon Turkey Bravo on Tomato Basil bread with 2,920 mg and Applebee's Chicken Fajitas Rollup with 3,600 mg sodium.
It's not hard to find items like these on the menus of the restaurant chains implicated in the ruling. Still, many of these chains have already updated their menus to comply with the new sodium warning rule in New York City.
Health officials say enforcement of the rule — the fine — will begin Mar. 1.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
If you're dining out in New York City, consider yourself warned. You might see the image of a little salt shaker printed on the menu. That means the particular menu item is high sodium - super salty. A judge has ruled chain restaurants in the city can be forced to issue these warnings. Here's NPR's Allison Aubrey.
ALLISION AUBREY, BYLINE: Before we get to the legal finding, let's get one thing straight. How much salt are we supposed to be consuming? I put the question to Jim O'Hara at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
JIM O'HARA: We're supposed to eat 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day - that's about a teaspoon of salt.
AUBREY: That's the upper limit. But most Americans consume a lot more. And this can increase the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. Now, last year, the New York City Board of Health had an idea. Since much of the sodium we consume comes from restaurant food, why not give diners a clear way of knowing which options on the menu are real sodium bombs? So the board passed a rule requiring chains to print a little saltshaker icon next to menu items that are very high in sodium. The National Restaurant Association sued immediately, arguing that the mandate was unnecessary and costly. But now a judge has ruled in favor of the city. And this means the city has the power to enforce its new rule and fine restaurants that don't comply.
THOMAS MERRILL: I do believe that the New York City salt label does protect public health.
AUBREY: That's Thomas Merrill, a lawyer for the city who defended the new rule in court. He says transparency is key. And as the saltshaker warnings have begun to appear on menus, some diners have been surprised.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank you for coming to Applebee's on 42nd Street. How may I help you?
AUBREY: I asked the Times Square Applebee's, which is already in compliance with the new rule, what sorts of menu items are flagged with the new salt warning icon.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: There's a lot. There's boneless wings, chicken quesadillas...
AUBREY: ...All of which contain a full day's worth of sodium. The city is giving all restaurant chains until March 1 to comply. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.