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Pass the salt, please

Why restaurants should welcome proposed salt-labeling rules, not fight them (for once).
salt shaker spill

Doctors are wasting their time using those little rubber hammers to test the reflexes of restaurateurs. All they have to do is whisper “Regulation,” then protect their ears from the shriek that follows.

It’s an instinctual response, a result of conditioning that began the day Head Cave Man suggested this new thing called fire be monitored by the tribal elders.

There’s been no shortage of reinforcement in more modern times. In California, for instance, the city of Davis will start fining fast-food restaurants $500 as of Sept. 1 for every time they sell a soda to a child without first asking the kid or her parents if they’d prefer milk or water. Lawmakers in San Francisco, meanwhile, are planning to require health alerts on soda ads as a way of discouraging consumption.

“It’s ironic that, in many parts of the country, we’re debating banning soda and legalizing marijuana,” Tim Ryan, president of The Culinary Institute of America, quipped during Menus of Change, a conference hosted by the school and Harvard University to promote healthier dining.

Mentioned several times during the June event was the new effort to legislate health in New York City, which is to restaurant regulation what Cooperstown is to baseball. Officials intend to require local units of restaurant chains to post a warning next to the menu listing of any item that packs more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium, or about a teaspoon.

The industry currently is struggling to meet federal menu-labeling requirements, which are still scheduled, as of this writing, to take effect Dec. 1. There’s a strong expectation that the adoption date will be pushed back, because the feds haven’t nailed exactly what chain restaurants must do to comply with the rules. Now New York is further complicating the matter by foisting yet another disclosure mandate on local chain units, which tend to be operated by comparatively small franchisees.

It’s exactly why the industry has to take action this time around, and that includes restaurants that won’t be affected by the requirement (it’s only applicable to local units of chains with at least 15 branches nationwide.)

But don’t take the blunderbuss down from the rack just yet. A dramatic response is required, to be sure, but the right action is voluntarily adopting the rule, if not working with lawmakers to craft a mandate. 

The kneejerk reaction to regulation—“No, no, and positively no!”—has to give way to the more realistic mindset of, “Let’s shape our own destiny.” Or, for the benefit of Star Trek fans and Borg readers, “Resistance is futile.”

Restaurants, no matter how much they spend on lobbying, will not be able to stop the nation’s slow trudge toward health. The smart move is shaping that quest, with all its fits and starts. In this instance, it comes down to providing menu transparency, not changing recipes or halting sales of a particular item. The industry’s longstanding argument has been, “Let the customer decide.” That’s exactly what it’d be doing by noting high-sodium choices voluntarily.

For concepts that are moving without government prodding to offer more healthful options, being more aggressive than the law mandates also is a way to reap considerable business benefits, as Chick-fil-A and Panera Bread attested during Menus of Change. Executives said their health initiatives have become a point of distinction, a satisfying ROI on the time and dollar investment of being proactive on health.

Indeed, that was the point of the event, said the CIA’s Ryan. “We wanted it to focus on business opportunity—business opportunity vs. legislation,” he said. “America, it turns out, is much better at capitalism than we are at prohibition.”

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