Court upholds mandate that chain restaurants provide salt warnings

salt shaker

The nation’s first requirement that chain restaurants flag high-sodium menu choices with a warning icon has withstood a legal challenge from the National Restaurant Association, allowing New York City to continue with enforcement.

A New York State Appellate Court ruled today that the mandate is both legal and a benefit to public health. It rejected the NRA’s contention that the city’s health department lacked the authority to require warning labels, which have traditionally been set at the federal level.

It also rebuffed the organization’s argument that a warning about salt content encroached on restaurants’ freedom of speech, since some scientists disagree about salt’s impact on health. The NRA in effect argued that restaurateurs should not be required to espouse health theories with which they may not agree.

New York City’s first-in-the-nation rule requires local units of restaurant chains with at least 15 branches nationwide to flag menu choices containing at least 2,300 milligrams of sodium with a salt shaker icon. The symbol has to appear on menus or menu boards.

Health authorities have estimated that 10% of chains' menu items likely warrant the warnings.

The requirement was passed in September 2015, but enforcement did not begin until last June, in part because of legal challenges. Although restaurants that fail to comply are subject to fines, few have reported being hit with the penalties. 

“The National Restaurant Association will be exploring all of our legal options moving forward following today’s ruling," NRA EVP Cicely Simpson said in a statement. "Local mandates on sodium regulation are a costly and onerous burden on all New York City restaurateurs. Instead of confusing state and local mandates, we believe the best approach to disclosing nutrition information is the uniformed national menu standard that will go into effect this year.” 

The NRA’s efforts had been rebuffed by a lower court several months ago. 

The measure was closely watched because several restaurant mandates that appeared first in New York City have since spread across the nation. The city was the first to require menu labeling, the first to ban trans-fats, and an early proponent of a no-smoking law. 

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