Restaurant group to sue NYC over sodium rule
The National Restaurant Association plans to file a lawsuit against New York City's health department over its requirement that chain restaurants post warning labels on foods that contain more than the recommended daily limit for sodium.
The rule, which takes effect Tuesday, requires chains with 15 or more locations in New York City to display a warning symbol — a salt shaker inside a triangle — if a menu item has more than 2,300 milligrams of salt.
“While the Board of Health thinks they are targeting corporate chains, in reality they are dealing yet another blow to many of New York’s small businesses that have been working and continue to work hard to provide nutritional access to their customers," said Christin Fernandez, spokesperson for the National Restaurant Association. "That is why we are taking legal action against this latest assault which goes too far, too fast for New York’s restaurant community."
The rule, which passed unanimously in September, does not limit how much sodium can be in food and does not penalize restaurants that serve food with more than the recommended daily amount.
Health department officials insist the warnings are necessary because most New Yorkers consume too much salt, which can lead to hypertension, heart disease and stroke, and because most don't realize where it is coming from.
“These warnings are needed in restaurants because the majority of sodium in our diet is not coming from what we decide to add with the salt shaker at the table, it’s already in the food when we buy it," New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett said in a statement.
The looming legal battle is reminiscent of fights between restaurants and the Bloomberg health department, which banned trans-fats and imposed calorie menus.
In 2012, when the city's Board of Health passed a rule limiting the size of sugary drinks, the National Restaurant Association, along with many others, sued to block the regulation.
The New York State Court of Appeals ruled the board "exceeded the scope of its regulatory authority."
That's no different than what the board is doing with the sodium warning, the restaurant association argued during the rule's public comment period.
"It is clear that the board is trying to circumvent the legislative process, and set policy by creating its own set of rules regarding sodium without the benefit of a legislative mandate or even guidance," the association said. "The Board is engaging in law-making, acting beyond the scope of its limited authority over food cleanliness and sanitation, and infringing upon the legislative jurisdiction of the City Council of New York."
The restaurant chains also argue the federal Affordable Care Act already requires chains with more than 20 locations to post nutritional information, including sodium.
“As an Association, we advocated for a uniform national menu-labeling standard on behalf of the industry," Fernandez said. "We believe consumers should have the same access to nutritional information from Portland, ME to Portland, OR. Local mandates like the one the board of health put forth unravel that uniformity. They are also placing an overly onerous and costly burden on New York’s restaurants that are already grappling with rising operating costs under the drastic actions of Governor [Andrew] Cuomo’s wage board."
"We're confident that the courts, if there is a lawsuit, will uphold the Board's authority to pass this rule," Chris Miller, a health department spokesman, said in a statement.
New York City is the first jurisdiction in the country to require sodium warnings, and the health department expects it will apply to 10 percent of all menu items.
Bassett, who has made reducing health inequalities a centerpiece of her agenda, has stated that black and Latino populations in New York consume more sodium than whites, leading to greater risk for heart disease and, ultimately, shorter life spans.
"This information will be particularly useful to a population that is already excessively burdened by cardiovascular disease because not only is the sodium intake higher, but the blood pressure levels in the black population are also substantially higher," Bassett said after the board approved the rule.