The Week In Ethics Blog

The Ethics of Salt

The Ethics of Salt

Posted On: Saturday, August 29, 2009

Lawsuits and advocacy groups’ attacks on the food industry are nothing new. They involve a battle of words, PR strategy, research and ultimately responsibility. We’ve been through the sugar wars, pesticide protests, cancer risks, claims on lowering cholesterol, trans fat bans and fighting obesity, to name a few. Recently the first sodium-related law suit was filed against a national restaurant chain by The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) who acknowledged that while it filed against Denny’s, there were several other restaurants that also would be appropriate targets.

After CSPI negotiations with Denny’s broke down and the menu modifications Denny’s made didn’t satisfy CSPI, it filed suit to force the chain to disclose sodium content on each meal and to put warning alerts on meals containing the highest levels of sodium.

Denny’s might be a logical target because its reputation was tarnished with racial discrimination lawsuits in the 1990s. It could be a target because it is the largest full-service family restaurant chain. It also could be a target because its food contains a lot of salt. Some examples: the Meat Lover’s Scramble, a breakfast choice, has 5,690 milligrams (mg) of sodium, while a lunch or dinner of clam chowder and Spicy Buffalo Chicken Melt with seasoned fries contains 6,700 mg.

Considering that the recommended daily amount of sodium a healthy adult should have is generally considered to be 1500 mg, these mg levels are off the chart. It means that one Denny’s breakfast could consume nearly four times the total daily recommended sodium level for all meals. Eat at Denny’s regularly and you could turn into Lot’s wife. Well maybe not, but you get the picture.

Denny’s calls the CSPI suit frivolous, promising to fight it aggressively, and says it offers customers a wide variety of choices to appeal to different lifestyles and dietary needs. CSPI says it wants to get the attention of the National Restaurant Association and wants restaurants to lower the amount of sodium in food served customers.

The National Restaurant Association, which talks about the strides restaurants have made over the years to lower sodium, offers a “Healthy Diet Finder” on its website. Member restaurants list qualifying menu items. The criteria for “healthy” seem to be options with relatively modest calories which may be the fruits of earlier battles won by advocates for reduced calorie menu options. However, in the “Healthy Diet Finder” sodium level isn’t on the radar.  Some examples: Ruby’s Diner’s egg white omelet has 930 mg sodium (if you request no added salt); Kentucky Fried Chicken’s southern style green beans have 570 mg sodium, while their tender roast sandwich has 1,180 mg sodium; and Burger King offers a veggie burger with 1,100 mg sodium.

So what is next in the battle of salt?  A good guess is legal arguments on why Denny’s did perpetrate fraud (CSPI’s view) or did not (Denny’s view) for not disclosing salt content in its menu options. A PR campaign demonstrating Denny’s commitment to health or nutrition is also a predictable strategy. Next would be presenting medical evidence to link high sodium content to strokes, heart attacks and death on one hand, while on the other hand, not finding evidence of conclusive links. And let’s not forget the debate on whether listing sodium content would have any impact on the public’s preferences for certain menu choices.

But at the heart of it all is a question. Whether it is Denny’s, Wendy’s, Burger King or any restaurant chain, how important is the concept of do no harm? Some of these companies are involved in the CSR movement – Corporate Social Responsibility – in which they enhance their reputation by demonstrating they are a good citizen. How will their leadership come down on the ethics of salt?

Gael O'Brien

Gael O’Brien is a catalyst for leaders leading with purpose and impact through clarity, presence and connection so that they create engagement that transforms their companies’ future. She is an executive coach, culture coach, speech coach and presenter. She publishes The Week in Ethics and is a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, a Kallman Executive Fellow, Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University and a Senior Fellow Social Innovation, the Lewis Institute at Babson College.

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Gloria-Jeanne DavisJ E GarrettDave Stachowiak Recent comment authors
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Dave Stachowiak
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Gail, thanks for raising this issue! I believe that we all have a shared responsibility to take good care of each other and of the world. I’m all for individual responsibility in making good choices with what we eat. We all individually bear the consequences (good and bad) of choices we make with our bodies. Blaming restaurants (and other companies) for bad choices we make is hypocritical. In addition, many people are not educated about good choices, and I believe that major corporate influencers also bear a responsibility to offer and raise awareness about good choices. With power and prestige… Read more »

J E Garrett
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There are gray areas, to be sure, in what is good for you to eat. People have to be sensible, and informed consumers – to the degree they are able to. The problem with the fast food industry in general – and not just Denny’s – is that they make it difficult to make informed choices. Eating something unwittingly that contains four to fives times the recommended daily dosage of sodium is a violation of the public trust. Leave the salt out of the cooking process, and let the customer decide how much to add to his or her tastes.… Read more »

Gloria-Jeanne Davis
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Gloria-Jeanne Davis

As usual Gael O’Brien has placed the spotlight on an essential issue that we should all be concerned about, having enough information to make healthy choices. Until Denny accepts its responsibility, I will make others aware of Denny’s role in supporting high levels of sodium use in its trusting customers.

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The Oklahoma Business Ethics Consortium was privileged to host Gael O’Brien as our guest speaker in January 2014. Her program was insightful and resonated with our participants. Her leading-edge concepts were innovative and practical, providing tools to better equip our business leaders in continuing their endeavors to promote ethical standards in the workplace. We appreciated the depth of knowledge she brought to the table and inspiration she provided. It was truly an enriching experience; we would definitely welcome her back.

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