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The British invasion of menu regulations signals U.S. industry’s next threat: posting salt contents

The U.K. media is abuzz. The government’s Cabinet Office just announced a new strategy, backed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, to slash the number of food choices available to hungry Britons. From the corner kebab shop to three-Michelin-star restaurants, every business will be subject to these new far-reaching regulations all in the name of “public health.”

The report outlines more than 100 pages of food-related policies, recommending that restaurants cover their menus in “traffic light” warning labels, and limit the fat, salt and sugar in their recipes in accordance with strict dietary guidelines. This paternalistic tome unquestioningly embraces the flawed conventional wisdom that diet is the culprit behind chronic health issues, and that the restaurant industry deserves most of the blame.

Of course, there’s no reason to believe the Atlantic is a wide enough moat to keep these policies from creeping over to America. Such insidious ideas have a way of clearing customs. In fact, the threat to restaurants here already is partially realized.

Menu labeling—albeit with calorie counts instead of red, yellow and green traffic lights—already has become a reality in New York City. Similar laws passed in counties and cities throughout the country are on the verge of taking effect, and 21 other governing bodies have new laws in the works to follow suit.

Ingredient regulation is another shared target of U.K. and U.S. public health officials. Though it hasn’t asked restaurants to hand over their recipes just yet, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration already has begun the process by hosting hearings on the regulatory status of salt.

The FDA currently categorizes sodium as “GRAS,” or “generally recognized as safe,” but if groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the American Medical Association get their way, warning labels, or even limits, on every salt-containing fare imaginable may be just around the corner. The AMA has gone so far as to explicitly request that the FDA develop regulatory measures to limit sodium in foods served in restaurants.

Needless to say, capping salt would have far-reaching and detrimental implications for an industry that depends on flavor.

I’ve warned before that legislation paves the way for litigation. If the nutritional content in a dish varies even the slightest bit from what has been labeled on the menu, you can be certain that it’s only a matter of time before a lawsuit is the next thing to come down the pike. Chains that voluntarily have listed nutrition information on their menus already have been bullied into court. Applebee’s, Chili’s and Macaroni Grill are among those currently facing class-action lawsuits.

That’s not the only legal pitfall now facing the hospitality industry.

California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment is considering adding caffeine to the list of chemicals covered by the state’s “Proposition 65” law. Prop 65 requires warning labels on any product that might “cause cancer or reproductive harm”—from French fries to plastic bottles. If lawmakers vote to include caffeine under the law, the implications would range from warning labels on coffee cups to class-action lawsuits against restaurants that failed to print a disclaimer on their chocolate cake.

The incoming Congress and president will be positioned to expand even more regulation into health coverage. The consequences for the restaurant business are enormous. I’m not just talking about the potential cost of mandates that may far exceed what industry employees need in terms of coverage, like proposed prenatal care for everyone—even single male workers. Once the government has a bigger stake in public health, it will have the “moral authority” to demand lifestyles without alcohol, sugar, salt, caffeine and all types of high-calorie fare. These foods will be demonized in federally funded public information campaigns—“This is your brain on sugar. Any questions?”

While it isn’t clear yet what the full extent of these regulations will be on what American and British restaurant guests choose to eat, the door is now open to even more nutrition activism and food-policy mandates.

The potential for the American food police to copy their British counterparts is already there. It’s up to restaurants here to stop these policies at the border. Every operator has a dog in this fight. What are you doing about it?

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