Frivolous Lawsuit Against Denny’s Over Salty Food

Denny's has never claimed that it serves only health-food, and nutrition facts about its food are available on its web site.

But that hasn't stopped the notoriously-unreliable Center for Science in the Public Interest from bringing a frivolous lawsuit against Denny's over its food, claiming that it is defrauding the public by serving food that has more than a day's supply of sodium. This lawsuit, known as DeBenedetto v. Denny’s, was filed on July 23 in Middlesex County, New Jersey. Hopefully, the judge will impose sanctions on CSPI's lawyers for bringing this suit.

At the heart of CSPI's complaint are its unfounded assumptions that (a) all restaurants imply that their food “has no more sodium than a meal at other restaurants,” and (b) that a typical restaurant’s food has no more salt than a person should consume in a day, such that a restaurant’s food doesn’t “contain more sodium than a person should consume in a day."

Neither assumption makes any sense. Many common food items in grocery stores have more than a day’s supply of salt. One V-8 has nearly half a day’s supply of salt. Many frozen dinners have more than a day’s supply of salt. Why would anyone expect restaurant fare to be healthier? (Many expensive, snobby, high-brow restaurants serve saltier food than what Denny's serves inexpensively and quickly to America's working-class and middle-class people.) There is no limit on who can be sued if this suit were to succeed.

Moreover, expecting all restaurants to have less than or exactly equal to the average restaurant's salt content is as unrealistic as harboring the Lake Wobegon fantasy that all children are above average. Some cuisines are just saltier than others.

If this assumption were accepted, it would be a one-way ratchet that would force all restaurants to steadily reduce their salt content to constantly remain at or below the average of their competitors in salt content. Food would become as bland as cardboard.

And, yet, these are the delusions harbored in CSPI's court complaint, which contains the following paragraphs:

"48. Plaintiff and New Jersey Consumers have purchased and consumed Denny's meals without knowing about the presence of excessive amounts of sodium. Plaintiff and New Jersey Consumers reasonably assume that a meal at Denny's has no more sodium than a meal at other restaurants. As detailed above, this assumption is reasonable, but incorrect, because Denny's hides the truth about its high sodium levels.
49. The omission of the information that certain meals at Denny's contain more sodium than a person should consume in an entire day – and that some people should consume in a few days – is misleading. That conduct violates the rights of the Plaintiff and New Jersey Consumers protected by the CFA."

How could consumers assume anything of the sort? How could they not taste the salt in the food?

My wife likes Denny's, especially its club sandwiches, and its reasonable prices. When she first immigrated to America, Denny's was one of the few restaurants she could ever afford to eat at, given her working-class roots. She was well aware that what she ordered was salty. A little extra salt in restaurant food is not a problem for most people, unless, perhaps, they not only have health problems aggravated by sodium, but also are so lazy that, despite those problems, they nevertheless eat out all the time rather than cooking their own meals, even though they could save money by cooking their own meals, as I did when I was younger and had little money to spend.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is one of the most unreliable sources of nutritional information, having once taught that trans fats were safer than saturated fat.

It has helped to blur the distinction between unhealthy and normal foods over the years, by denigrating normal food items such as baked potatoes, hamburgers, pizza, pork chops, and bacon as unhealthy. Never mind that a baked potato has only 100 calories, gives you 30 percent of your day's supply of vitamin C (more than a banana), some protein, and many important minerals — and that potatoes are so cheap that even a person of modest means can afford them. The potato saved generations of impoverished Irish, German, and Russian farmers from starvation and diseases related to nutritional deficiencies. (By the way, I lost 10 pounts while working at McDonalds during Summer of 1988, during a 10-week period in which I subsisted largely on the hamburgers I ate for free as an employee).

CSPI's list last year of eight supposedly awful restaurant foods both blurred the distinction between healthy and unhealthy foods, and shows ignorance of basic math. Along with some disgusting concoctions that were loaded with fat and have few nutrients, its list includes a couple dishes that are fairly healthy, such as the Twice-Baked Lasagna with Meatballs at Romano's Macaroni Grill.

CSPI faulted the Twice-Baked Lasagna for having twice the fat of most other restaurant lasagnas. But that's only natural, because it's a relatively large lasagna — nearly 1360 calories. It also has much more protein than most restaurant lasagnas.

CSPI pointed to no evidence that the Twice-Baked Lasagna has a significantly unhealthier ratio than the typical restaurant lasagna, either in terms of the ratio of fat to protein, or fat to total calories. The Twice-Baked Lasagna has about your daily fat intake, but it also gives you about half your daily calorie needs. It's a large lasagna, not an unhealthy lasagna. If you were hungry, wouldn't you rather be served a large lasagna than a small one?