The suit charges Denny's with committing "deceptive and unconscionable commercial practices" under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act. Specifically, the charge is that the chain's menu "deceptively presents various items as single meals to be consumed by one individual, without disclosing that they contain substantially more sodium (in some cases two or three times more) than the maximum recommended amount for all meals consumed by an individual during a given day." Some Denny's meals contain 4,000 to 5,000 or more milligrams of sodium.
The suit cites the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guideline that about 70% of Americans fall into categories of people who should consume no more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day, including those over 40, those with hypertension, and African Americans.
The suit was filed Thursday in Superior Court of New Jersey in Middlesex County on behalf of Nick DeBenedetto, a 48-year-old man with high blood pressure who says he has been a long-time Denny's customer at Denny's restaurants in East Brunswick and Brick, N.J. In addition to the menu disclosures, it seeks, for DeBenedetto only, "treble damages and/or a refund of the purchase price" of meals the plaintiff claims he would not have eaten if he'd been informed about their sodium content.
Denny's released this statement in response: "Denny's believes the lawsuit filed by CSPI is frivolous and without merit, and the company will fight it aggressively in court. With hundreds of items on the menu, Denny's offers a wide variety of choice for consumers with different lifestyles, understanding that many have special dietary needs. In June 2009 the company launched Better For You items allowing guests to replace favorites with lower-sodium and fat alternatives. Additionally, earlier this month Denny's launched a Better For You kids menu. All nutritional information is available online at www.dennys.com."
CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner, who is acting as co-counsel, said during a press teleconference today that Denny's was chosen for the class action suit because, "as far as we can tell, Denny's is public enemy #1" as far as chain restaurant sodium levels are concerned, although the center has also stressed that too-high levels of sodium are common in chain restaurant fare.
In May, CSPI announced that it had researchers investigate 17 chains, and found that 85 out of 102 meals analyzed contained more than one day's worth of sodium. Meals from several chains had sodium levels of 4,000 to 5,000 mgs.
Gardner and CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson said that CSPI first approached Denny's in December 2007 and engaged in private negotiations about sodium until this spring, when talks ended. CSPI maintains that the chain made only small sodium reductions in a handful of items after negotiations ceased. Jacobsen said that posting sodium content and other nutritional information on the Web, as opposed to menus, is "totally inadequate."
The National Restaurant Association, on behalf of the industry, has expressed support of a federal nutritional labeling standard for restaurant chains with 20 or more locations. For the industry, dealing with a patchwork of municipal and state regulations, some of which are "onerous or incapable of being complied with," is the worst-case scenario, points out Dennis Lombardi, EVP, foodservice strategies for WD Partners, a design and development partner for multi-unit retail and restaurant businesses.
A hybrid or compromise bill combining aspects of two different the Labeling Education and Nutrition Act (LEAN) and Menu Education and Labeling Act (MEAL) was introduced this summer. That bill would require posting calories on menus, but sodium and other nutritional information would need to be available only on customer request.
"There's no doubt we're headed for a new environment for restaurants in which there is going to be a level of requirement of sodium disclosure," sums up Lombardi. "Consumers are pushing for it, legislators are responding and the restaurant industry has by and large embraced this as well."
CSPI has pushed for Congress to pass legislation requiring the Secretary of Health and Human Services to implement a plan to reduce sodium in packaged and restaurant food by half within 10 years. Jacobsen notes that an Institute of Medicine study on how to lower sodium is underway, and some believe the FDA "should crack down on sodium on its own."