A new regulation imposed by the New York City Board of Health in December requires franchise restaurants to label meals or food items containing more than a teaspoon of sodium or salt.
The rule, which went into effect in December 2015, requires any food item containing more than 2,300 milligrams of dietary sodium to be labeled with a health warning and a large icon resembling a salt shaker.
The rule does not apply to restaurant franchises with fewer than 15 nationwide locations or single-location restaurants. Currently, restaurant owners found violating the regulation are not being fined, but enforcement is scheduled to begin in March. Violators will be fined for failing to adhere to the mandate.
Costs Exceed Benefits
Sherzod Abdukadirov, a research fellow in the Regulatory Studies Program at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, says restaurant owners’ compliance costs exceed any public health benefits from the regulations.
“All of this obviously comes with a cost,” Abdukadirov said. “The restaurants will have to first go and measure the sodium content of each and every item, and if they periodically renew their menus, they have to go through this all over again. Additionally, there’s the time the manager has to spend on complying with this rule, which is time and effort that is not put into running the business.”
Abdukadirov says consumers will pay more and will receive few real benefits.
“These costs will be passed on to consumers in higher prices, so you [should] have to demonstrate that you’re actually delivering benefits to the consumers,” Abdukadirov said. “Unfortunately, New York is not really doing this.”
Hungry for Freer Markets
Jeff Stier, a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, says the goals of the health regulations could be achieved through a freer market for hungry consumers.
“There is a subsector of the population in the United States that consumes too much overall sodium and has high blood pressure that can be treated with changes to diet,” Stier said. “They ought to be able to go to a restaurant and ask for low-sodium options. If those restaurants don’t want to serve them, then the consumer can decide not to eat there. That’s the best way to solve this problem.”
Stier says consumers should be feeling salty about governments over-labeling their food.
“Before you know it, you’ll have sugar warnings,” Stier said. “You have calorie warnings. Some people want genetically modified food warnings. Our menus and our food labels are going to be littered with what are, for most people, irrelevant facts.”
Robert Lurie ([email protected]) writes from Tempe, Arizona.
Brian Elbel, et al., “Calorie Labeling And Food Choices: A First Look At The Effects On Low-Income People In New York City,” Health Affairs: https://www.heartland.org/policy-documents/calorie-labeling-and-food-choices-first-look-effects-low-income-people-new-york-cit/