These days, you can always spot emojis on the menu. A hot pepper warns you of a spice hazard. A leafy sprout heralds a vegetarian option. A heart with a check is supposed to mark a low-fat dish.

Yet the National Restaurant Association has gone to court to stop a little salt shaker from taking over chain restaurant menus in New York City.

The same health department that tried — and failed — to stamp out supersized sodas in Gotham now wants chain restaurants to print a salt shaker icon next to any menu item that meets or exceeds the federal recommendation for daily sodium intake.

That’s 2,300 milligrams, or about one teaspoon.

If a judge doesn’t intervene later this month, restaurants with more than 15 locations could face fines starting March 1 if they don’t mark the salt monsters on their menus.

The Public Health Law Center, based at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, filed an amicus brief supporting the city in its fight for the little salt shakers.

Doug Blanke, the center’s founder and director, called excess sodium the second-biggest cause of preventable death in the United States. So in his view, it’s only reasonable that restaurants should alert their customers when they’re about to swallow a day’s helping of salt in a single burger or order of chicken wings.

“What these disclosures are doing is increasing personal autonomy, so that people who want to eat well have the information so they can make a healthy choice,” said Blanke, who played a key role in Minnesota’s litigation against the tobacco industry in the 1990s.

The restaurant association has raised all sorts of objections to the mandatory salt warnings. Yet the one that caught my eye was the argument that it violated their freedom of speech. Restaurants shouldn’t be forced to put salt shakers on their menus, any more than they should be prohibited from doing so if they so pleased, the association argues.

In its petition, the association argues that having to print the salt shaker symbol forces restaurants to “parrot” the government’s view of sodium’s threat, with which it disagrees.

“Restaurants should continue to have the freedom to do whatever they want with their menus,” said Christin Fernandez, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based National Restaurant Association. Restaurants have already cut salt on their own, she said, but New York City has gone too far, and a result, local restaurants are being “mandated to death.”

The same battle has been waged over proposals to force labeling of genetically modified organisms, though the health threat from salt overload is far more established than the supposed harm from GMOs.

Health advocates say the sodium loaded in restaurant meals and processed foods is killing people by the tens of thousands, by spiking their blood pressure and causing strokes and heart attacks.

I often feel that I’ve ingested a salt lick whenever I eat out, particularly in restaurants that are going downhill. I don’t know if the little salt shakers, which resemble traffic signs more than skull-and-crossbones, are going to make people think twice, if they’ve already got their heart set on the megaburger with bacon and cheese.

Still, there’s a place for government to force businesses to disclose what’s really in their products. The restaurant association acknowledges this, and in fact argues that New York and other cities should hold off on the salt warnings and await labeling requirements that kick in nationwide as soon as Dec. 1.

Those rules, part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, will force chain restaurants to display calorie counts and offer other nutritional information, the kind you get on any food package, upon request.

New York has required the display of calorie counts since 2008, so there’s reason to think, or fear, its salt shaker emojis may also take over the country someday. While it hopes for a last-minute reprieve from the judge, the restaurant association has advised the affected chains in New York to follow the rules for now.

Inspectors from the New York City Department of Health have spotted the salt shaker warnings at Domino’s, Blimpie, Uno, Joe’s Crab Shack and other chains, a spokesman said. On the new Applebee’s menu, eight appetizers carried the salty warning, including the spinach and artichoke dip and the sweet potato fries. Only two didn’t: the mozzarella sticks and the Sriracha shrimp.

 

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116.