Under mounting pressure to accelerate reduction of sodium levels in their products, 16 major food and beverage and restaurant companies are officially committing to participate in the voluntary National Salt Reduction Initiative (NSRI) initiated by New York City.
The companies are Kraft Foods, Mars Food US, Heinz, Starbucks, Subway, Unilever, McCain Foods, Hain Celestial, Boar's Head, FreshDirect, Goya, Au Bon Pain, LiDestri, Red Gold, Uno Chicago Grill and White Rose.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the corporate sign-ons April 26. The initiative seeks to reduce salt in packaged and restaurant food by 25% over five years, which would reduce Americans' salt consumption by 20%, to reduce high blood pressure and associated health risks and healthcare costs.
The city began coordinating the effort two years ago. These first-to-commit companies are joining a partnership that includes 18 national health organizations, as well as 29 cities, states and related entities.
In total, the participating companies have committed to reducing sodium in 49 of NSRI's packaged food categories and 15 restaurant categories. The NSRI set targets for 2012 and 2014. Companies were given the option of committing to working toward either 2012 and 2014 targets, or both, for a given category.
As recently reported in Marketing Daily, many major food and beverage brands have been quietly reducing sodium levels in various brands in recent years, in addition to introducing growing numbers of reduced-sodium products. However, in light of consumers' long acclimation to the taste of existing formulations and concerns about potential sales impacts, relatively few, until recently, had publicly announced sodium-reduction strategies for key brands or on a portfolio-wide basis.
Last week's release of an Institute of Medicine report supporting creation of Food and Drug Administration sodium regulations for packaged and restaurant foods, phased in over an unspecified timetable, added urgency to companies' efforts to avoid such regulation by accelerating voluntary efforts and the public profile of such efforts.
Kraft, which had announced in March that it will reduce sodium by an average of 10% across its North American portfolio over the next two years, on Monday stressed that it had been working to lower sodium in its products for several years.
Mars Food US, in announcing its participation in the NSRI, said it will voluntarily lower sodium in flavored varieties of its #1 rice brand, Uncle Ben's, by 25% over five years (noting that other Uncle Ben's varieties already meet the NSRI targets).
Mike Wilson, VP of research and development at Mars Food, said that Mars appreciates "being given the opportunity to participate in helping craft sodium-reduction targets" and believes that "the success of the NSRI can serve as an example of how public and private partnerships can positively affect health and nutrition." Last year, Mars implemented front-of-pack nutrition labeling on its confections products, including sodium content disclosure.
Other companies that were not among these first signers have also raised their sodium-reduction profiles in recent months. In April, General Mills announced acceleration of its goals to reduce sodium by 20% across multiple categories by 2015, noting that an internal research team had been working since 2005 "to silently trim sodium levels without compromising taste." PepsiCo told The Wall Street Journal in March that its goal is to cut sodium in its salty snacks by 25% by 2015.
On the restaurant front, NSRI signer Starbucks confirmed its continuing commitment to offering more options with reduced fat and calories, as well as sodium, and Subway said it had committed to reducing sodium in food in its restaurants worldwide. Au Bon Pain said it started using NSRI's guidelines over a year ago to reduce salt in some soups.
Non-signer chains that have made sodium reduction moves include Burger King U.S., which reduced salt in kids' meals, and Moe's Southwest Grill, which implemented lowered-sodium marinades and sauces.
Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a strong advocate of federal regulation of sodium in food content, released a statement praising New York City for encouraging major companies to cut sodium through the NSRI, as well as its leadership in chain restaurant menu nutrition labeling and addressing other health issues.
However, Jacobson added: "While I'm glad that 16 companies have chosen to participate in the initiative, too many companies -- including giants such as Pepsico, ConAgra, McDonald's and Burger King -- have chosen to skip it. The limited participation indicates the need for federal health agencies to set mandatory national limits on the amount of sodium allowed in packaged and restaurant food."
Dietary guidelines for Americans call for a daily adult sodium consumption maximum of 2,300 mg, and NSRI stated that 1,500 mg is recommended for most adults. Current average adult consumption is more than 3,400 mg per day.