FDA May Regulate Salt

Another government assault or health crisis solution ingredient?

WASHINGTON -- The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) earlier this week announced a gradual but potentially far-reaching effort to reduce the amount of salt Americans consume in a bid to combat high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes and other health problems, reported The Los Angeles Times.

The FDA's efforts will begin by seeking voluntary cutbacks by the food industry. But ultimately, the agency may resort to regulating acceptable levels of sodium in food and beverages. "Nothing is off the table," FDA spokesperson Meghan Scott told the newspaper. "Everyone's [image-nocss] in agreement that something needs to be done.... We just don't know what it's going to look like."

Salt currently is categorized as a substance "generally recognized as safe," hence not regulated in food products, said the report.

The FDA's decision was applauded by public health advocacy groups and scientists, who have long pointed up the link between high salt intake and a host of serious and costly medical problems. But it was also criticized by some industry groups, and some politicians denounced it as another government assault on personal freedom.

The deliberate pace sketched by the FDA, and the absence of any immediate plans to issue regulations, were in contrast to a strongly worded report concurrently released Tuesday by the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, the Times said.

The institute declared that expeditious "regulatory action is necessary" because efforts to educate the public about the perils of excessive dietary salt and voluntary sodium-cutting efforts by industry have failed, although the institute called for such regulations to take effect gradually.

On a daily basis, Americans consume almost 50% more than the roughly one teaspoon of salt recommended as a maximum by the federal government's 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the institute's report said.

Sodium intake is "simply too high to be safe," Dr. Jane E. Henney, former commissioner of the FDA and chairwoman of the institute committee that produced the report, told the paper. "Clearly, salt is essential.... We need it. But the level we're taking in right now is far beyond the maximal levels we need."

The 14-member panel's findings, more than a year in the making, come on the heels of other studies tallying the health and economic costs of excessive salt intake, said the paper. Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health predicted that, if dietary sodium consumption declined to the levels recommended in the 2005 federal guidelines, some 90,000 deaths could be averted yearly. A Rand Corp. study published in September estimated that reducing American sodium intake to recommended levels could save $18 billion yearly in treatment for hypertension, stroke, renal disease and heart failure associated with excessive salt consumption.

"There is now overwhelming evidence that we must treat sodium reduction as a critical public health priority," Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the Harvard School of Public Health's department of nutrition, told the paper. Willett, who was a key figure in the recent federal initiative to drive trans fats from the U.S. food supply, noted how quickly the U.S. food industry adapted to those new rules, and called for that industry's "best creative minds to bring similar leadership" to the bid to reduce sodium.

The FDA's decision to press food makers to reduce salt caps a 30-year campaign by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the report. The center sued the FDA in 2005 to try to force the agency to reclassify salt as a food additive subject to regulation. Director Michael Jacobson urged the FDA to adopt mandatory limits on salt swiftly, and then phase them in slowly. A gradual phase-in is considered crucial so that consumers do not notice a taste difference in foods with diminished amounts of salt.

Skeptics of government viewed it as another sign of a "nanny state run amok," said the report.

"It's another encroachment on people's personal freedom," Gary Howard, spokesperson for Campaign for Liberty, an advocacy group formed in the wake of Texas Rep. Ron Paul's 2008 presidential campaign, told the paper. "They've already gotten into people's medical care," Howard said. "Where will they go next? Will they mandate exercise?"

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) said in a statement:

"We share the IOM committee's overall goal of helping consumers reduce their sodium intake. The food industry is fully committed to providing consumers with healthy choices, including products with reduced sodium content.

"For years, food companies have been introducing a wide variety of new products into the marketplace including reduced sodium, containing no sodium or low sodium, or with no added salt. During that time, food companies have been very successful at making incremental reductions in sodium levels in food products that maintain consumer taste preferences.

"The food industry is committed to continue to reduce the sodium content in thousands of products to help consumers reach the current U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommendation of no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. And we look forward to working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to develop a national sodium reduction strategy that will help consumer.

"Sodium is an important ingredient that plays a critical role in flavor enhancement as well as an important functional role in food safety and preservation."