Thought to be the first putative class action against a restaurant chain related to disclosure of sodium content on menus, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has filed what appears to be a test case against Denny’s. Best guess is the case will fail on its merits (though for CSPI, success in litigation may not be the point).
The case, DeBenedetto v. Denny’s Corporation, asserts claims under New Jersey law for consumer fraud, N.J.S.A. 56:8-1, et seq., and breach of the implied warranty of merchantability under the New Jersey U.C.C., N.J.S.A. 12A:2-314(1)-(2). The theory advanced in CSPI’s complaint is that consumers have been “duped” about sodium content and that the “ordinary consumer, unschooled in nutrition and perhaps preoccupied with other matters, would not reasonably expect to encounter these high levels of sodium in one meal.”
Big incongruency in the complaint is that Denny’s does disclose sodium content in its meals. CSPI admits that Denny’s provides this information both online and in store pamphlets, but it complains that the information is “incomprehensible.” A review of Denny’s online disclosures shows a detailed nutritional chart, including sodium levels for every item on its menu. Here’s an excerpt of Denny’s online disclosures:
But, CSPI’s complaint does not really seem to be that disclosures are not clear enough. Indeed, CSPI argues that regardless of such disclosures by restaurants, studies show that “almost no one reads the nutrition information . . . .”
What CSPI is really saying is that sellers of salty foods (not unlike foods contaminated with E. coli) are strictly liable no matter the disclosures. If this were the law (which as of now, it is not), few restaurants (or food manufacturers) would be exempt from paying the medical bills of their customers who develop heart disease. No doubt CSPI’s real goal is "regulation through litigation" and the jury is still out whether CSPI’s penchant for the court system will affect change.