Last fall, officials of the restaurant and food processing industries were invited by feared New York City health commissioner Thomas Frieden to a meeting about salt consumption. Or at least that’s all we keyboard jockeys were able to learn at the time. Frieden’s office would neither confirm nor deny that such a get-together was even happening, never mind the content. Nor would suspected participants acknowledge whether or not they were part of the confab. It was completely hush-hush, which of course usually means something big is developing.
Yesterday’s New York Times finally cleared up all of the mystery-- except why there was such intrigue in the first place. It also included the bombshell that restaurant-chain executives will be summoned to Gracie Mansion next month for another salt-focused luncheon.
The story recounted how Frieden told participants that he wanted them to cut the salt in their most popular and sodium-rich foods by 25% in the next five years, and by another quarter in the succeeding five years. As Frieden readily admitted to the Times, failure to heed the the “suggestion” could prompt the city to seek “legislation.”
The latter is in quotes because it usually signifies action by a legislature. But in New York’s case, Friedan has enacted restaurant-related laws by fiat. The city became the first municipality in the country to mandate calorie disclosures for all standard chain menu items, a requirement put on the books by the health department's decree. California, several Pacific Northwest counties and a number of municipalities have since copied that model--and sometimes the mode of enactment. Health departments have become lawmakers.
Frieden was also the instigator of the city’s trans-fat ban, another model for areas from coast to coast. This is not a man who poses idle threats.
That may be evident in the subsequent actions of several fast-food giants. Yum! Brands, the parent of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC, noted last month that it’s cutting back on the sodium in its food. And Burger King said it’d switch to low-sodium items for its kids meals.
When Frieden convened the October luncheon, I was still at Nation’s Restaurant News, and we were able to confirm that restaurant-industry officials were part of the gathering. The February session will apparently include restaurant chiefs, not the association executives who were invited in the fall.