As the federal government begins enforcing calorie labeling on restaurant menus nationwide, a bill that would order certain Philadelphia chain eateries to include additional sodium warning labels on salty dishes advanced through City Council on Monday.

The bill, introduced by Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, would affect chain restaurants with 15 or more branches nationwide – of which there are more than 700 in total across the city. The legislation, which recently moved out of committee, would force those chains to place a saltshaker caution label with the phrase “SODIUM WARNING” on permanent menu items that contain 2,300 milligrams or more of sodium – the daily recommended serving, according to the American Heart Association.

Should the bill pass, Philadelphia would become the second big city in the country – New York City was the first – to require similar labeling from national chains.

While New York City officials faced litigious pushback from the restaurant industry over its sodium warning label last year, Philadelphia legislators heard no testimony against the bill at Monday’s Public Health and Human Services Committee meeting. Restaurant industry lobbyists did, however, work out a handful of minor amendments to the bill, including a delayed implementation period.

“We expanded the implementation to 12 months in large part because restaurants have just adopted federal requirements for menu labeling,” said Julian Thompson, Brown’s senior policy advisor. “We wanted to give them enough time to roll it out.”

Language has also been included to exempt seasonal menu items, and the bill’s original “stop sign” warning has been replaced with a saltshaker image.

 

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The proposed sodium label that would appear next to any menu item with 2,300 milligrams or more of sodium. | Image: Philadelphia City Council

The Food and Drug Administration began enforcing new rules Monday that require chain restaurants, grocers and convenience stores to post calorie counts on all regular menu items – a practice that franchises like McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts have engaged in for years.

But in most places, sodium remains an invisible factor for restaurant-goers.

Some chain menu items easily pack more than a day's worth of salt without disclosure. One particularly egregious offender – a combo platter at Red Lobster – delivers more than 6,500 milligrams of sodium, or four days’ recommended intake, according to a 2015 report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health supported the warning label bill, citing research that says more than 70 percent of dietary sodium intake comes from processed and restaurant foods.

Philadelphia’s population ranks among the highest at-risk for premature heart disease among big cities in the U.S., according to the National Center for Health Statistic, with even higher rates among African American communities.

“The sodium warning bill introduced by Councilwoman Reynolds Brown will provide important point-of-purchase information to Philadelphians who want to follow healthier diets to help prevent and control high blood pressure,” said Dr. Cheryl Bettigole, director of the department’s Division of Chronic Disease Prevention. “The science-based warning design will help consumers to identify menu items with a full day’s worth of sodium so that they can make informed choices for themselves and their families. It is an important step forward for health in our city.”

Brown’s spokesperson Samantha Pearson said a vote is expected on the bill before Council breaks for summer recess, although no date has been set.

Should the bill pass, chain eateries could face a $250 fine during routine health inspections for failure to comply with the new labeling laws.

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