Lawsuits and advocacy groups’ attacks on the food industry are nothing new. They involve a battle of words, PR strategy, research and ultimately responsibility. We’ve been through the sugar wars, pesticide protests, cancer risks, claims on lowering cholesterol, trans fat bans and fighting obesity, to name a few. Recently the first sodium-related law suit was filed against a national restaurant chain by The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) who acknowledged that while it filed against Denny’s, there were several other restaurants that also would be appropriate targets.
After CSPI negotiations with Denny’s broke down and the menu modifications Denny’s made didn’t satisfy CSPI, it filed suit to force the chain to disclose sodium content on each meal and to put warning alerts on meals containing the highest levels of sodium.
Denny’s might be a logical target because its reputation was tarnished with racial discrimination lawsuits in the 1990s. It could be a target because it is the largest full-service family restaurant chain. It also could be a target because its food contains a lot of salt. Some examples: the Meat Lover’s Scramble, a breakfast choice, has 5,690 milligrams (mg) of sodium, while a lunch or dinner of clam chowder and Spicy Buffalo Chicken Melt with seasoned fries contains 6,700 mg.
Considering that the recommended daily amount of sodium a healthy adult should have is generally considered to be 1500 mg, these mg levels are off the chart. It means that one Denny’s breakfast could consume nearly four times the total daily recommended sodium level for all meals. Eat at Denny’s regularly and you could turn into Lot’s wife. Well maybe not, but you get the picture.
Denny’s calls the CSPI suit frivolous, promising to fight it aggressively, and says it offers customers a wide variety of choices to appeal to different lifestyles and dietary needs. CSPI says it wants to get the attention of the National Restaurant Association and wants restaurants to lower the amount of sodium in food served customers.
The National Restaurant Association, which talks about the strides restaurants have made over the years to lower sodium, offers a “Healthy Diet Finder” on its website. Member restaurants list qualifying menu items. The criteria for “healthy” seem to be options with relatively modest calories which may be the fruits of earlier battles won by advocates for reduced calorie menu options. However, in the “Healthy Diet Finder” sodium level isn’t on the radar. Some examples: Ruby’s Diner’s egg white omelet has 930 mg sodium (if you request no added salt); Kentucky Fried Chicken’s southern style green beans have 570 mg sodium, while their tender roast sandwich has 1,180 mg sodium; and Burger King offers a veggie burger with 1,100 mg sodium.
So what is next in the battle of salt? A good guess is legal arguments on why Denny’s did perpetrate fraud (CSPI’s view) or did not (Denny’s view) for not disclosing salt content in its menu options. A PR campaign demonstrating Denny’s commitment to health or nutrition is also a predictable strategy. Next would be presenting medical evidence to link high sodium content to strokes, heart attacks and death on one hand, while on the other hand, not finding evidence of conclusive links. And let’s not forget the debate on whether listing sodium content would have any impact on the public’s preferences for certain menu choices.
But at the heart of it all is a question. Whether it is Denny’s, Wendy’s, Burger King or any restaurant chain, how important is the concept of do no harm? Some of these companies are involved in the CSR movement – Corporate Social Responsibility – in which they enhance their reputation by demonstrating they are a good citizen. How will their leadership come down on the ethics of salt?