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Warning signs showing up in California restaurants


29th April 2003

Maine, USA: Olive Garden restaurants in California began posting warning signs inside lobbies this past weekend telling customers that food and beverages they sell may contain certain chemicals that could be dangerous to their health.

The Italian casual dining chain, operated by Darden Restaurants, started posting warning signs approved by the attorney general at a meeting last Thursday with various representatives of the state’s restaurant industry, Darden’s Director of Media and Communications Mike Bernstein told The Wave Monday

Darden Restaurants, Landry’s Restaurants, and 14 other parent companies of restaurant chains doing business in the state of California, were sued on April 10 by the state’s attorney general for failing to warn consumers about the dangers of mercury found in certain seafoods they sell.

Two complaints alleged the restaurants violated the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, better known as Proposition 65.

The California Restaurant Association urged members not to waste any time in tacking up the approved, 'safe-harbour' warning sign.

Click here to see a full size image of the restaurant warning sign.

“CRA recommends all restaurants, especially those serving fish and seafood, post this warning in your establishment immediately,” urged the association on its Website.

But Thomas Dresslar, spokesperson for Attorney General Bill Lockyer, pointed out that restaurants have a choice of either posting the ‘safe-harbour’ warning sign or the interim warning sign now posted by California retailers warning customers of the dangers of mercury sold in certain species of seafood.

The attorney general has ordered seven retailers - Safeway, Kroger, Albertson's, Trader Joe's, Costco, Andronico’s Markets, and Whole Foods - to warn customers that tuna, swordfish and shark sold in their markets contain methyl mercury, listed by the state as a compound known to cause cancer and reproductive harm.

Click here to see a full size image of the retail warning sign. (Courtesy

An alternative retail warning is also in use, click here to view a full size image

A settlement in the case of the retailers is still pending.

Red Lobster restaurants in the state, also owned by Orlando-based Darden Restaurants, will not be posting the signs, Bernstein said, as the units do not “currently serve” those species.

An Olive Garden in Whittier, Calif., has its warning sign posted in the lobby near the health department certificate, as does a sister unit in Burbank, The Wave confirmed Monday.

Despite the specific nature of the complaint filed against the restaurants, as it only pertains to a select group of finfish, restaurants such as Olive Garden are posting warning signs even though it offers just one questionable dinner entrée: swordfish piccata, a $15.25 dinner entrée served in a white wine lemon sauce along with freshly roasted vegetables.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2001 advised pregnant women, and women of childbearing age who may become pregnant, to not eat swordfish or shark because they contain high levels of methyl mercury.

Just recently, the California Medical Association recommended that fresh and canned fish carry labels warning about the danger of exposure to high levels of mercury.

Houston-based Landry’s Seafood Restaurants operates several Chart House restaurants in California. Since the April 10 filing, in which the seafood chain is named, Landry’s “pulled some of the fish [off menus] in the interim”, Steve Scheinthal, general counsel for Landry’s Restaurant’s Inc., told The Wave Monday.

According to Scheinthal, Chart House sold only two species named in the complaint: swordfish and tuna. Swordfish was taken off the menu at restaurant because it “wasn’t a big seller.”

Another restaurant, Scheinthal said, does run daily seafood specials that may include fish named in the complaint but no decision has been made to date whether to keep certain species off the menu.

He added that he was aware of Thursday’s meeting with the attorney general but was waiting for a 4 pm EST conference call Monday with company attorneys to learn more details.

Some of the restaurant chains included in the lawsuits are:

· Red Lobster (Darden Restaurants)

· Morton’s

· McCormick & Schmick Management Group

· Ruth’s Chris Steak House

· Chart House (Landry’s Restaurants)

· Olive Garden (Darden Restaurants)

· Benihana’s

· Chili’s (Brinker International)

· Macaroni Grill (Brinker International)

· Little Italy (Brinker International)

· Outback Steakhouse

· Roy’s (Outback)

· Cheesecake Factory

· Hof’s Hut

· Claim Jumper

· Bennigan’s (Metromedia Restaurant Group)

· P.F. Chang’s China Bistro