It seems that the foodpolice at the unconscionably named Center for Science in the Public Interest are at it again. These are the same people who’ve attacked movie theater popcorn and who called fettuccini alfredo “heart attack on a plate.” Their new pet peeve is salt — or to be more specific, sodium. Last week, CSPI filed a class action lawsuit against the restaurant chain Denny’s, claiming that, because most Denny’s menu items contain a “high” level of sodium, the chain is engaging in consumer fraud and breaching the implied warranty of merchantability. The complaint itself, filed July 23 in Superior Court in Middlesex County, New Jersey, can be viewed here.
A full analysis of the case’s legal merits will have to wait for another day. But, suffice it to say that, by alleging on page 3 of the complaint that “Sodium is the deadliest ingredient in the food supply,” these folks aren’t beyond gross exaggeration. The gist of the argument seems to be that (1) increasing sodium intake is known to increase blood pressure; and (2) very high blood pressure is known to increase the risk of heart attack and stroke; so (3) Denny’s failure to notify customers of the total amount of sodium in its menu items is putting them at risk.
There’s a bit of sleight of hand here, of course. Although allegations 1 and 2 are true, there is no clear relationship between the slightly higher blood pressure that results from exceding the recommended daily amount of sodium intake and the very high blood pressure levels that raise the risk of heart attack or stroke. That’s why scientists have never been able to conclude that high sodium intake itself is associated with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. It’s like arguing that mouthwash manufacturers are responsible for thousands of automobile accidents every year because we all know that mouthwash contains alcohol and that drunk driving causes auto accidents.
Unfortunately, lawsuits like these are bad news for companies like Denny’s. Most people won’t bother to see what the facts are, they’ll just hear that Denny’s is being sued for harming customers and it’ll tarnish the chain’s reputation. It’s one reason why so many unmeritorious lawsuits get settled — it’s much easier to pay the plaintiffs, change your behavior in small ways, and be done with it. Still, I hope Denny’s decides to fight this one in court. It’s about time someone started standing up to these bullies. And, if Denny’s does go to court, I for one will make an effort to eat at a Denny’s restaurant more often.