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Judge Rules NYC Can Require Sodium Warnings On Restaurant Menus

A New York judge has ruled that items like Panera's Bacon Turkey Bravo Sandwich on Tomato Basil bread, which contains 2,850 milligrams of sodium, require a warning label.

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.

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