Beverage Industry Uses Old and New Strategies to Block Soda Taxes

The battle over soda taxation at the state level rages on, as more and more cash-strapped states seek to close budget shortfalls and avoid cuts to critical services such as public safety and transportation. Officials in at least 20 cities and states have proposed new excise taxes or to remove existing sales tax exemptions on non-alcoholic drinks. The beverage industry has responded by spending millions of dollars on lobbying and advertising against the proposed beverage “sin taxes” since 2009.

In a recent twist, the beverage industry has offered the city of Philadelphia what it calls a $10 million “good-will-gesture donation” to fund health initiatives in the city if the city agrees to abandon its proposed excise tax on soda. As noted by a food industry analyst, the move “demonstrates just how much the soda industry fears any attempt to tax its product.” Although the $10 million may seem like a generous offer, Philadelphia’s tax proposal, in contrast, would have raised $77 million in revenues, with $20 million going toward obesity prevention.

In this article, we review the strategies the beverage industry has used to try to block efforts to tax soda and sugar-sweetened beverages at the federal level, and in several key localities, including New York State, Washington State, Maine, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. We also present evidence that clearly demonstrates how the proposed taxes and presumed increase in the price of soda would help Americans lower obesity rates by reducing our per capita soda consumption.

Beverage industry blocks proposals to tax soda at federal level

A federal excise tax on soda was first proposed in September 2009 as one means of offsetting the cost of healthcare reform and reducing the nation’s high rates of obesity. Although the proposals did not get very far, several high-level talks did take place, including a Senate Finance Committee hearing and closed-door talks with members of the House Ways and Means Committee (1). In response, the beverage industry immediately mobilized a broad-based lobbying effort to quash any such proposal. The coalition operated under the name Americans Against Food Taxes, and included soft drink manufacturers, suppliers, and mass-marketers such as McDonald’s.

In Washington D.C., corporations such as Coca-Cola Co., Pepsi Co., and numerous fast food companies spent $18 million in lobbying activities, and several million more in campaign donations to officials (2). Television commercials, such as this one, which appealed to concerns of everyday families about affording groceries, cost over $10 million to produce and air in key districts (2).

The American Beverage Association also went on the offensive in response to the increasing scientific evidence on the link between increased soda consumption and weight gain. The industry group attacked the findings of nutrition researchers, and funded studies of their own that were more favorable to the beverage industry’s interest in keeping soda consumption high. Kevin Keane, senior vice president of public affairs for the American Beverage Association, claimed that researchers “pick and choose the facts that support their view and attack anyone who disagrees. It’s scientific McCarthyism” (2). The industry’s well-funded efforts to silence any talk of a federal tax on soda were ultimately successful.

New York State fails to pass revised soda tax proposal

Corporations and Health Watch previously reported on the failed campaign to implement a “penny per ounce” excise tax as part of an effort to help close some of New York’s 2009-2010 budget shortfall. After Governor Patterson first announced the proposal in December 2008, the beverage industry poured massive amounts of funding (over $3 million) into lobbying and other efforts to oppose the measure, often working under the coalition called New Yorkers Against Unfair Taxes. The American Beverage Association spent nearly $900,000 lobbying in New York State in 2009, up from zero dollars in 2008. This influx of money appears to have worked, as original supporters of the tax like Senator Jeffrey Klein (D-Bronx/Westchester) became instrumental in getting the proposal off the table. Senator Klein accepted $36,000 in campaign contributions from the beverage industry and related groups since the tax was proposed in December 2008, actions that coincided with his decision to reverse his position on the soda tax.

Given New York State’s unrelenting fiscal troubles and multibillion-dollar shortfall, Governor Patterson tried to revive his soda tax proposal for the 2010-2011 budget, this time with a “carrot and stick” approach that would have allowed for an exemption for diet drinks and bottled water. At the present time, soda, diet soda, and bottled water are subject to a sales tax, but Governor Paterson wanted to add on an additional excise tax of “a penny per ounce” which would be levied on the beverage bottler for sugary sodas, with a “carrot” of sales tax exemptions for water and diet sodas. Governor Paterson maintained that the public would support the proposal as long as “we can justify where the taxes are going” (3). However, the revised proposal failed as well, owing in large part to the American Beverage Association’s ability to dominate discourse on the issue by spending $9.4 million in New York State in the first four months of 2010.

Philadelphia forced to raise property taxes and slash public safety programs rather than tax soda

Another locality where proposals to tax soda have recently failed is Philadelphia, where an estimated 70 percent of children in the city’s poorest neighborhoods are considered to be overweight or obese, according to city data. There, the City Council has recently refused to vote on the proposal to tax soda and other drinks with added sugar. Had the original proposal by Mayor Nutter been successful, Philadelphia would have levied a 2-cent per ounce excise tax on sugary drinks as part of an effort to balance the city’s 2010-2011 fiscal budget. The proposed tax was eventually reduced to a working number of between ½ to ¾ cents per ounce, which would have raised an estimated $9 million to $14 million in 2010-2011. The proposed tax wasintended to avoid cuts to libraries, recreation and public safety.

In Philadelphia, area retailers, teamsters and beverage corporations came together to oppose the tax, claiming that it would lead to the loss of nearly 1,000 of an estimated 13,000 food store jobs, as well as 2,000 jobs in distribution and bottling. The beverage industry has been criticized for the role that it played in the defeat of this soda tax. Harold Honickman, a “beverage mogul” who owns Canada Dry Delaware Valley Bottling Co., and whose net worth is estimated at up to $850 million, became the face of the anti-soda tax coalition, when he stepped up to offer $10 million on behalf of the beverage industry for city health and recreation programs just weeks before the scheduled vote. Mayor Nutter commented that, “It seemed a little strange in the middle of this fiscal and public health issue, that out of nowhere an offer of money was made, essentially to make this go away. I don’t operate like that, and our government does not operate like that.”

With City Council members deciding not to vote on the soda tax, the Mayor was forced to find other means of closing the budget gap. In order to close the budget shortfall, Philadelphia will be forced to shed 339 city positions, in addition to slashing police and fire companies’ budgets, reducing libraries to four-day weeks, cutting $500,000 from shelters and supportive housing programs, and raising property taxes 9.9 percent.

Washington D.C. fails to pass soda tax to fund Healthy Schools Act

In Washington D.C., penny per ounce soda taxes were considered as a means of funding healthy school foods programs earlier this year. The bill would have mandated more physical education and that low-calorie and low-fat meals be served to the area’s approximately 70,000 students. In a preliminary vote in April of this year, the 13-member D.C. Council unanimously voted to back the Healthy Schools Act, without a soda excise tax attached. However, once the soda tax was attached to the bill, several weeks of intensive lobbying followed by groups such as the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Beverage Association, and support for the penny per ounce tax quickly dwindled. Instead, the city decided to apply its 6 percent sales tax to soda and other sweetened beverages to fund the $6 million cost of the program.

Industry works to repeal taxes in States that have passed excise taxes

It is noteworthy that a few states – Washington, Maine and Colorado – were recently successful in passing excise taxes on soda, but the beverage industry has now stepped up efforts to overturn these taxes. In April, the Washington state legislature passed a tax of 2 cents for every 12 ounces of soda and other sugary beverage, with a 2012 expiration date. According to theWashington Post, the American Beverage Association soon began funneling money to its Washington State branch. The beverage industry coalition, operating under the name Stop Grocery Taxes, had has collected over 395,000 signatures which will place Initiative I-1107 “to stop the tax hikes on food and beverages” on the state ballot in November. A similar approach has already been successful in Maine, where two years ago the legislature passed a soda tax of 42 cents per gallon. Last November, the beverage industry spent over $4 million on its Fed Up With Taxes Campaign, which was successful in putting the tax on the ballot and encouraging voters to reject the tax.

The case for a soda tax

While industry groups claim that soda taxes are nothing more than a money grab from taxpayers struggling to support families, there is substantial evidence that increases in price will in fact reduce soda consumption. In a recent report by the USDA, it was estimated that a ten percent price increase would decrease purchases by 12.6%. Cathy Nonas, head of nutrition programs for the New York City Department of Health, has noted, “If the consumer sees the price difference when they’re about ready to buy the product, we do see a reduction in consumption of an unhealthy food.”

With Americans currently consuming approximately 50 gallons of soda per year (4), and nearly two thirds of American adults who are overweight or obese, a reduction in consumption of sodas and other high calorie beverages will translate to better health.

Note: The proposals described above deal mainly with excise taxes, which would be levied on the beverage bottler. Sales taxes, on the other hand, are levied directly on the consumer at checkout. Sales taxes are generally a percentage of the total cost, whereas excise taxes tend to be levied per unit or quantity (e.g., per ounce, or per a given quantity of syrup used). In addition, sales taxes apply to a range of products, whereas excise taxes are usually associated with a particular product category, such as alcohol or tobacco.

Excise taxes are generally considered preferable by health advocates in terms of their likely effect on price and consumption patterns, although few states currently have excise taxes on soda (exceptions include Arkansas and West Virginia). Soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages, despite their low nutrient content, are exempt from sales tax in many localities because they are considered “grocery items.”

By Lauren Evans, writer for Corporations and Health Watch and student in the Doctor of Public Health program at the City University of New York.

References

  1. Hamburger T, Geiger K. Soda tax fizzles; Targeting lawmakers and nutritionists, beverage firms put a stopper in the plan. Los Angeles Times. February 7, 2010.
  2. Geiger K, Hamburger T. States poised to become new battleground in soda tax wars; Lawmakers in California and elsewhere seek levies on sweetened drinks. Los Angeles Times. February 21, 2010.
  3. Madore JT. Proposal could be pain in the wallet; Paterson unveils new taxes, big cuts in budget plan; says $7.4B hole calls for difficult, necessary moves. Newsday. January 10, 2010.
  4. Bittman M. A sin we sip instead of smoke? The New York Times. February 14, 2010.

Recommended reading on relationship between taxes and soda consumption:

California county votes to ban the use of toys to attract kids to unhealthy fast food meals

In August, Santa Clara County in California may become the nation’s first municipality to ban the use of toys in marketing high fat, high sodium fast food to kids. On May 11th the county board passed the final vote needed to ban the toys that typically accompany children’s meals in fast food chains such as McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s if those meals do no meet certain nutritional standards set forth by the Institute on Medicine.

For example, in order to come with a toy, a meal would have to have less than 485 calories and 600 mg of sodium (1). By way of comparison, the nutritional contents of several standard kids’ meals are as follows:

A McDonald’s Happy Meal of Cheeseburger, 12 ounce Sprite, and small french fries

contains

640 calories

24 grams fat

940 mg sodium

35 grams sugar

A Burger King Kids’ Meal with Cheeseburger, 12 ounce Sprite, and apple slices

contains

490 calories

16 grams fat

800 mg sodium

45 grams sugar

A Wendy’s Kids’ Meal with Crispy Chicken sandwich, 12 ounce Hi-C fruit punch, and kids’ french fries

contains

620 calories

22 grams fat

970 mg sodium

27 grams sugar


The fast food companies respond

The ordinance applies to all 150 or so restaurants in the unincorporated areas of Santa Clara County, but only about a dozen of these restaurants are fast food outlets that tend to offer free toys with children’s meals. The California Restaurant Association, which represents the interests of fast food companies, has launched an aggressive campaign to prevent the new ordinance from taking effect. McDonald’s and other corporations are fearful that the ban could lead other municipalities to enact similar rules. The campaign has run misleading full-page advertisements in local newspapers asking for constituents to contact their representatives. As noted by the California Restaurant Association’s director of local affairs, “It sets a tone. It could have a domino effect.” Michele Simon, author of Appetite for Profit wrote in a recent blog post about the ban, “I’ve been saying for years that it’s only a matter of time until some city or county figures out that a simple change in law is all that’s needed to make such promotions illegal at the local level. Localities have tremendous public health authority that is often underutilized.”

Fast food companies’ use of fictional characters

McDonald’s and Burger King have by far the worst track records when it comes to using popular fictional characters to peddle toxic foods. According to a recent Congressional report described in the Los Angeles Times, food companies spent about $1.6 billion in 2006 in marketing foods to children, and about $360 million of this sum was spent on the toys that come with kids’ meals. McDonald’s Corporation held an exclusive 10-year contract with Disney from 1996 to 2006, and Burger King currently has a contract with DreamWorks and Nickelodeon for co-branding (2). Both McDonald’s and Burger King use clever advertising techniques to capture children’s attention, leading them to use their “pester power” to bring their parents and families to fast food restaurants so that they can collect all of the toys. See Burger King’s website for kids here, and McDonald’s website for kids here.

Health advocates and parents grow concerned about the use of toys to sell junk food

While the fast food giants are trying to spin the issue as a matter of government officials taking decisions away from parents, or as excessive government meddling, many parents welcome the proposal, though their feelings can be complex. Comments from popular parents’ websites are a testament to this. For instance, a comment on CafeMom reads, “I’m mixed on this. . . I just wish they would stop running commercials. I do not allow my son to eat fast food but it’s getting harder cuz of their stupid commercials showing what toys they are offering.”

The county supervisor behind the proposed ordinance, Ken Yeager, told the New York Times that the new law would “level the playing field by taking away the incentive to choose fatty, sugary foods over healthier options.” Yaeger noted that “This ordinance breaks the link between unhealthy food and prizes. It helps parents make the choices they want for their children without toys and other freebies luring them toward food that fails to meet basic nutritional standards.”

While many have credited the California county with pioneering the move to ban toys in promoting fast foods, it should be noted that similar bans have been proposed in other countries where childhood obesity is of concern, such as in England in 2008, and in Brazil and Spain in 2009.

Lauren Evans is a writer for Corporations and Health Watch and student in the Doctor of Public Health program at the City University of New York.

References

  1. According to a press release dated 4/27/10 from Santa Clara County: “Restaurants cannot use toys as rewards for buying foods that have excessive calories (more than 120 for a beverage, 200 for a single food item, or 485 for a meal), excessive sodium (480 mg for a single food item or 600 mg for a meal), excessive fat (more than 35% of total calories from fat), or excessive sugar (more than 10% of calories from added sweeteners). The criteria are based on nationally recognized standards for children’s health created by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA), and recommendations for children’s food published by the Institute of Medicine (IOM).”
  2. Institute on Medicine of the National Academies. Food Marketing to Children and Youth. Washington DC: The National Academies Press; 2006.

Image Credits:

  1. Amanky
  2. graciepoo

After criticism, food industry abandons Smart Choices Program

In August 2009, major U.S. food manufacturers—including Kellogg, Kraft, ConAgra, General Mills, Pepsico, Sun-Maid, and Unilever—implemented the “Smart Choices” nutrition labeling program. Spending more than $1.47 million in 2008 and 2009 to develop the system featuring a green check mark and logo on foods that meet certain nutritional standards, 14 processed foods giants developed the system to promote their own products as “healthy.” 1 Two months later, on October 23rd, the Smart Choices program announced that it would “voluntarily postpone active operations and not encourage wider use of the logo at this time by either new or currently enrolled companies.” What happened?

While the idea of putting a label on the front of the package to guide consumers in making healthy choices holds much appeal, food researchers and media critics were outraged by the standards used. “Smart Choices Foods: Dumb as They Look?” asked a headline in Forbes magazine. When Kellogg gave its sugar-dense Froot Loops and Cocoa Krispies the Smart Choice check (because of the vitamins they added and the milk children poured in), Walter C. Willett, chairman of the nutrition department of the Harvard School of Public Health told the New York Times, “These are horrible choices.” Awarding checks to these products, he explained, is “a blatant failure of this system and it makes it, I’m afraid, not credible.”

While media and scientific criticism of the Smart Choices program may have made the food industry uncomfortable, it was two government agencies that sent the industry-funded architects of Smart Choices back to the drawing board. On October 15th Connecticut State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal announced an investigation into “a potentially misleading national food label program that deems mayonnaise, sugar-laden cereals and other nutritionally suspect foods ‘Smart Choices.’’’

Blumenthal noted that, “These so-called Smart Choices seem nutritionally suspect—and the label potentially misleading… Our investigation asks what objective scientific standards, research or factual evidence justify labeling such products as ’smart.’ … Busy moms and dads deserve truth in labeling—particularly when their children‘s health is at stake.”

About a week after Blumenthal’s announcement, the U.S. Food and Drug Agency released a letter warning that Smart Choices may actually do more harm than good. They noted that their research suggested that Smart Choices, as implemented, may mislead customers about the health benefits of certain foods and may make consumers less likely to read the detailed nutrition facts panel. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg told reporters that “There are products that have gotten the Smart Choices check mark that are almost 50 percent sugar.” 2 In the cautionary letter, the FDA affirmed its position that, “both the criteria and symbols used in front-of-package and shelf-labeling systems be nutritionally sound, well-designed to help consumers make informed and healthy food choices, and not be false or misleading.” 3 Two days later, Smart Choices’ suspended operations and declared it welcomed the “opportunity to collaborate on front-of-package labeling with the FDA.” 4

Do health advocates support a unified Front of Package (FOP) labeling systems?

While food advocates and government officials rejected the particulars of Smart Choices, many of these critics, most notably the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), have long argued for an easy-to-use symbol to supplement the nutrition facts panel. In fact, CSPI submitted a petition to the FDA in November 2006 arguing for a simplified uniform national program. In this petition, they describe the inconsistent, confusing and misleading systems have been implemented by various corporations to promote their own products. For example, the petition by CSPI notes that:

  • Pepsi Co’s “Smart Spot” symbol has been applied to their Munchies Kid Mix, a snack mix that includes Cap’n Crunch cereal and Cheetos and candy-coated chocolate
  • General Mills has a “Goodness Corner” symbol that has been applied to its Chocolate Lucky Charms
  • Kraft’s “Sensible Solution” program has been applied to several high-fat cheeses, salty hot dogs, and Nabisco Strawberry Newtons
  • Kellogg uses misleading “Best to You” banners to “draw attention to a product’s more healthful attributes” while overlooking less healthful characteristics. For example, one banner advertises that the product contains “iron” and “energy” while overlooking excessive sugar content
  • the dairy industry allows a “3-A-Day” symbol on its products regardless of fat content
  • the American Heart Association’s “heart check” does not consider trans fats or refined sugars
  • Unilever’s “Eat Smart” allows for its extremely salty products to earn this label

Next steps: a nutritionally sound Front of Package (FOP) labeling system

Had it been properly designed and implemented, the Smart Choices program could have created a more unified and less confusing system for consumers. Instead, the food industry paid for a rating system that would not force it to make changes that might jeopardize profitability. CSPI Director Michael Jacobson believed the corporations participating in Smart Choices were hoping to avoid federal regulation of Front-of-Package labeling by showing the FDA that they were capable of developing a system on their own. 5, 6 He told the New York Times, “It clearly blew up in their faces. And the ironic thing is, their device for pre-empting government involvement actually seems to have stimulated government involvement.” 6 In its October 21st letter, the FDA promises to devise rules for FOP labeling that American consumers can trust. 3

So what are the lessons from the temporary demise of Smart Choices? First, active public oversight and monitoring can yield action. The threat of investigations by the Connecticut Attorney General and perhaps other State Attorneys General and the FDA’s cautionary letter clearly got the attention of the food industry, which feared bad publicity or possible legal action that could damage their reputation in a very tough economy. Second, the rating system established by the industry-funded Smart Choices program clearly does not meet most reasonable professional nutrition standards—one more example of industry self-regulation failing to safeguard public health. (For more on this, see Voluntary Guidelines vs. Public Oversight: Finding the right strategies to reduce harmful corporate practices) Finally, the Smart Choices story shows that with a new administration in Washington, advocates and state officials can hope for at least some level of support for their efforts from federal regulators, a dramatic change from a year ago.

On the other hand, it may be easier to stop a bad program like Smart Choices than to start an effective front-of-package labeling system. The decisions the FDA makes in the coming months will show whether the agency is willing to lead the fight for a labeling system that in fact promotes health. As FDA Commissioner Peggy Hamburg told reporters, “There‘s a growing proliferation of forms and symbols, check marks, numerical ratings, stars, heart icons and the like… There‘s truly a cacophony of approaches, not unlike the tower of Babel.” Whether the FDA can quiet that cacophony by requiring the food industry to speak in a language that all Americans can understand and use to make healthier food choices remains to be seen.

Lauren Evans is a student in the Doctor of Public Health program at City University of New York.

 

References

1 Ruiz R. Smart Choices Foods: Dumb as They Look? Processed-foods giants spent more than $1 million to create nutritional guidelines for a labeling system that favors their own products. Forbes.com. September 17, 2009. Available at http://www.forbes.com/2009/09/17/smart-choices-labels-lifestyle-health-foods.html. Accessed November 22, 2009.

2 Foodprocessing.com. Maybe a not-so-smart choice. October 26, 2009. Available at http://www.foodprocessing.com/industrynews/2009/141.html. Accessed November 14, 2009.

3 Foodconsumer.org FDA concerned about Smart Choices. October 24, 2009.

4 FDA. Guidance for Industry: Letter Regarding Point of Purchase Food Labeling. October 2009. Available at http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/
GuidanceDocuments/FoodLabelingNutrition/ucm187208.htm. Accessed November 22, 2009.

5 Press Release from Smart Choices Program. Smart Choices Program™ Postpones Active Operations: Group Welcomes Opportunity to Collaborate on Front-of-package Labeling with the FDA. October 23, 2009. Available at http://www.smartchoicesprogram.com/pr_091023_operations.html. Accessed November 22, 2009.

6 Neuman W. Food label program to suspend operations. October 23, 2009. The New York Times.

 

Image Credits:
1. KayVee.INC
2. Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com

Dangerous levels of salt in chain restaurant meals prompts action by public health departments and a lawsuit against Denny’s Corporation

Food manufacturers and chain restaurants continue to increase the amount of sodium in their foods to dangerously high levels. Growing concern about the salt in processed and restaurant foods and the lack of industry concern over the health of the American people has led advocates to consider new ways to encourage the food industry to lower the salt in processed food. In this report, CHW describes two distinct efforts: a national initiative started by the New York City Department of Health in April 2009 and a class action lawsuit filed in July 2009 against Denny’s by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), an organization with a long history of advocating for stronger policies involving salt content in processed foods. We also describe the recent voluntary action taken by Campbell Soup Co. in July 2009 to lower the sodium content of one of its best-selling products, tomato soup, so that it meets recommended guidelines.

More than 25 years ago, the Food and Drug Administration’s Dietary Sodium Initiative called on the food industry to voluntarily reduce sodium levels in processed foods. However, since that time, food manufacturers and chain restaurants have continued to increase the amount of sodium in their foods to dangerously high levels. Indeed, at some of the nation’s largest chain restaurants, the amount of salt in a single meal is often more than two to three times higher than the recommended daily allowance for sodium. For most Americans, this means an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke in the long-term, all leading causes of death among U.S. adults. For some, particularly the elderly, consuming several days’ worth of salt in a single meal may be enough to trigger congestive heart failure.1 In a recent news story, pediatric urologists and nephrologists also attribute the sharp rise in kidney stones in children to increased salt intake, particularly from highly processed, high-salt, high-fat foods.

Growing concern about the salt content in processed and restaurant foods and the lack of industry concern over the health of the American people has led advocates to consider new ways to encourage the food industry to lower the salt in processed food. In this report, Corporations and Health Watch describes two distinct efforts: a national initiative started by the New York City Department of Health in April 2009 and a class action lawsuit filed in July 2009 against Denny’s by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), an organization with a long history of advocating for stronger policies involving salt content in processed foods. We also describe the recent voluntary action taken by Campbell Soup Co. in July 2009 to lower the sodium content of one of its best-selling products, tomato soup, so that it meets recommended guidelines.

How much sodium is safe to consume? For most adults, no more than 1,500mg daily

According to the Institute of Medicine, children aged 4-8 should consume no more than 1,200 mg of sodium per day. Guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suggest that 69% of the adult population – those over age 40, African Americans, and those with high blood pressure – should consume no more than 1,500 mg daily. And for the third of American adults who do not fit into those high-risk categories, the upper limit of sodium intake is around 2,300 mg. More than three-quarters of the sodium that Americans consume comes from processed and restaurant foods; approximately 12% is naturally occurring in foods such as dairy products; about 5% is added during preparation at home; and only about 6% is added at the table.

Exactly how much sodium is present in chain restaurant foods?

Not only do many restaurant chains add dangerous levels of salt to their products, they often do their best to hide the amount of sodium that is present. This information is hidden on websites to which many customers lack access, and despite the best efforts of consumer advocates, these restaurants have repeatedly refused to disclose this information voluntarily to customers on menus. In other cases, the tables used to determine sodium and caloric content are difficult for the average customer to interpret. A sample of popular items for adults and children, taken from a recent press release by CSPI reveals the high amounts of salt that is typical in today’s chain restaurants:

  • Chili’s Honey-Chipotle Ribs with Mashed Potatoes with Gravy, Seasonal Vegetables, and a Dr. Pepper soda has 6,440 mg, or 429% of the advised daily limit for most U.S. adults
  • Olive Garden Chicken Parmigiana with a Breadstick, Garden Fresh Salad with House Dressing, and Raspberry Lemonade has 5,735 mg, or 382% of the advised daily limit for most U.S. adults
  • Children’s menu at KFC: Popcorn Chicken with Macaroni and Cheese, Teddy Grahams, and 2% milk has 2,005 mg, or 167% the advised daily limit for children
  • Children’s menu at Red Lobster: Chicken Fingers, Biscuit, Fries, Raspberry Lemonade has 2,430 mg, or 203% of the advised daily limit for children

What can be done to encourage the food industry to reduce the amount of salt and disclose the amount of salt to their customers?

Three recent examples illustrate the range of strategies for that are being used to reduce salt in processed food.

NYC Department of Health launches nationwide public health campaign to cut the salt in restaurants and processed foods

Some public health departments have begun campaigns to encourage chain restaurants to reduce the amount of sodium in their foods and to disclose the amount of sodium in their products to consumers. The New York City Department of Health’s Cardiovascular Disease Prevention division launched a national campaign in April of this year with the support of numerous public health departments across the country and organizations such as the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, the American College of Epidemiology, and the American College of Cardiology. According to a campaign press release, “The initiative calls on food industry leaders to help develop, and then adhere to, sodium targets for all products, using categories such as breads, breakfast cereals and prepared entrees. The goal is to achieve substantial, gradual reductions in salt levels across a wide range of foods.” In New York City alone, more than 750,000 people are at increased risk of heart attack and stroke because of uncontrolled high blood pressure. Nationwide, it is estimated that a 50% reduction in salt in processed and restaurant foods could prevent 150,000 premature deaths each year. In a fact sheet, the campaign describes in greater detail the strategy of “Working with the food industry to set salt reduction targets that are substantial, achievable, gradual, and measurable.” In addition, the campaign seeks to educate consumers about the dangers of salt and hypertension in publications such as “Cut the Salt! And lower your blood pressure and risk of heart attack and stroke[pdf].

Campbell Soup Co. adopts a new strategic priority: the reduction in sodium in hundreds of its products

In late July 2009, approximately three months after the start of the national health campaign described above, Campbell Soup Co. announced that it would voluntarily reduce the amount of sodium in one of its best-selling products, tomato soup, which it has been producing for 62 years. The new formulation meets federal nutritional guidelines for sodium because it contains 480 mg or less of sodium per serving. Instead of relying on excessive amounts of sodium to enhance the flavor of its tomato soup, the company says that it is experimenting with different varieties of tomatoes and other flavorings.2

According to executives in the company, cutting sodium across hundreds of its products is now a top strategic priority.2 Denise Morrison, president of Campbell Soup North America, has said “We hope it’s the biggest change you never notice.” 2 The company says that it has test-marketed the newer formulation of its soup in all 50 states, and most people say they do not miss the salt or that they like the new formulation better.2 This is precisely the type of positive action by the private sector that the national campaign started by the New York City Health Department seeks to achieve.

A class action lawsuit is filed against Denny’s by CSPI

In July 2009, the Center for Science in the Public Interest filed a class action complaint in New Jersey against Denny’s Corporation. Denny’s is a corporation that in 2008 had more than $648 million in company restaurant sales in its more than 1,500 restaurants across the country. The goal of the suit is to compel the restaurant corporation to disclose the amount of sodium in its meals, and to provide customers with a warning concerning the safety of high-sodium food. CSPI met with Denny’s Corporation lawyers initially in an effort to convince Denny’s to lower sodium content in their meals. It became clear, however, that the corporation was not willing to cooperate with this request.3 According to a Public Citizen blog entry, “We chose to contact Denny’s as the first (but not, we suspect, the last) restaurant chain to face a lawsuit for it’s wrongdoing because, as best we could tell, Denny’s is Public Health Enemy Number One when it comes to sodium. Denny’s admitted, when we first met with its lawyers, that it knew that excess sodium was a problem for Americans, and that its meals contained astronomically high levels of sodium. This is a classic consumer protection lawsuit, no different from a suit against a used car dealer who sells a car with 200,000 miles, but with the odometer disconnected. What we seek is simple – a court order forcing Denny’s to do what it should already be doing: Warning of the risks of high-sodium meals and telling its customer’s just how much sodium they get when they eat at Denny’s. That way, folks can decide whether or not to risk their lives by eating Denny’s meals.”

The complaint highlights the fact that “at least 75 percent of Denny’s meals contain more than the maximum amount of sodium most Americans should consume in an entire day.” Below are some menu items CSPI listed in its complaint against Denny’s.

A: Moons Over My Hammy: A ham and scrambled egg sandwich with Swiss and American cheese on grilled sourdough served with hash browns has 3,230 mg sodium, or 215 percent of the advised daily limit.

B: The Super Bird: A turkey breast sandwich with melted Swiss cheese, bacon strips and tomato on grilled sourdough served with French fries has 2,610 mg sodium, or 174 percent of the advised daily limit.

C: Double Cheeseburger: Two beef patties and four slices of American cheese with lettuce, tomato, pickles, and red onion served with French fries has 4,130 mg sodium, or 275 percent the daily limit.

D. Spicy Buffalo Chicken Melt: A fried chicken breast covered in a buffalo sauce with lettuce, tomato, and Swiss cheese on ciabatta bread with a garlic spread served with French fries has 4,120 mg sodium, or 275 percent of the advised daily limit.

E. Super Grand Slam Slamwich: Two scrambled eggs, sausage, crispy bacon, shaved ham, mayonnaise, and American cheese on potato bread grilled with a maple spice spread served with hash browns, and two pancakes has 5,690 mg sodium, or 379 percent of the advised daily limit.

On July 23, 2009 Denny’s responded to investors regarding the class action complaint in a press release. in which the company reassures investors that it will fight CSPI’s lawsuit aggressively in court, claiming the suit is “without merit.” The company points to a new menu for health-conscious consumers Better for You introduced in June 2009.

However, CSPI defends its legal action. Said Michael F. Jacobsen, CSPI’s Executive Director, “Who knows how many Americans have been pushed prematurely into their graves thanks to sodium levels found in Olive Garden, Chili’s, and Red Lobster? These chains are sabotaging the food supply.” 4

Future directions

The new national campaign begun by the New York City Department of Health shows that reducing the amount of salt that people consume requires action by individuals, governments, and the private sector. Individuals can learn about how to monitor and reduce their salt intake, but chain restaurants such as Denny’s that serve customers dangerously high levels of sodium and fail to properly disclose salt content to customers make this task much more difficult.

By their recent action, the New York City Department of Health and the Center for Science in the Public Interest demonstrate two complementary and reinforcing strategies to encourage the food industry to make it easier for their customers to avoid dangerously high levels of salt. Campbell Soup Company’s decision to hold the salt in its tomato soup shows that the processed food manufacturers can find innovative ways to reduce the salt content of its products so that they meet federal guidelines, without necessarily sacrificing taste. By pursuing multiple strategies to lower salt in processed food, health advocates can help lower the burden of salt-related chronic diseases.

By Lauren Evans, doctoral student in public health at City University of New York.

 

References

1 CSPI press release dated 7/23/09.  Unsafe sodium levels at Denny’s prompt class action lawsuit. http://www.cspinet.org/new/200907231.html.   Accessed September 3, 2009.

2 Downing J. Campbell takes a gamble, cuts salt in tomato soup. The Sacramento Bee. August 20, 2009. http://www.sacbee.com/161/story/2124138.html?storylink=lingospot_related_articles.  Accessed September 3, 2009.

3 Activist group sues Denny’s over sodium levels.  July 23, 2009. http://www.reuters.com/article/healthNews/idUSTRE56M4J320090723.  Accessed September 3, 2009.

4 CSPI press release dated May 11, 2009.  “Heart Attack Entrees with Side Orders of Stroke”
src=”uploads/images/old_archives/img/clip_image005_0000.gif” border=”0″ alt=”blank2″ width=”1″ height=”5″ />Overly Salty Restaurant Meals Present Long-Term Health Risks for All, and Immediate Danger for Some.  http://www.cspinet.org/new/200905111.html. Accessed September 3, 2009.

Photo Credits:
1. premshree
2. the_sampler
3. grenfrog00