The signs are increasingly pointing toward Food and Drug Administration intervention and eventual regulation of sodium levels in packaged and restaurant food and beverages.
A newly released report from the independent nonprofit Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends that the FDA set mandatory national standards for sodium content -- albeit implemented over a period of years.
Prior to the report's release, The Washington Post reported anonymous FDA sources as stating that the agency plans -- beginning later this year -- to work with the food industry to analyze salt levels in products within specific F&B categories, to set salt limits for them, and begin the process of reducing levels to those limits over time.
The FDA responded with a statement saying that it has not yet even made a decision to regulate sodium content, never mind create regulations. The agency said it will review the IOM's recommendations and create a plan to work with other federal agencies, public health and consumer groups, and the food industry to support the reduction of sodium levels in the food supply.
Congress asked IOM to recommend strategies for reducing sodium intake to Dietary Guidelines for Americans levels -- 2,300 mg per day for most groups. Americans consume an average of 3,400 mg of sodium per day, with nearly 80% of that coming from processed foods.
Excessive sodium is a major contributor to high blood pressure and heightened risks of heart and kidney failure and strokes. Analysts estimate that population-wide reductions in sodium could prevent more than 100,000 deaths annually.
IOM recommends that sodium reductions to FDA-set standards be carried out as "small reductions instituted regularly as part of a carefully monitored process," to allow consumers to adjust to the taste. IOM stresses the need for cooperation among public health and consumer organizations and the food industry, as well as the need for the Secretary of Health and Human Services to coordinate new standards implementation.
The report was hailed as validation for long-advocated regulatory intervention by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and legislators Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT).
In a CSPI press call, Sen. Harkin, Rep. DeLauro and Stephen Havas, adjunct professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, all concurred with IOM that industry self-regulation and voluntary corporate efforts over several decades have failed to stem increasing salt consumption's health effects and healthcare costs.
Sen. Harkin said he would use IOM's report to conduct hearings in the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee which he chairs, including investigation of what time frame is really needed. While phasing in may make sense, "we don't want to wait too long," because action on this "major health problem" is "long overdue," he said.
Rep. DeLauro also called for expedience, and cited New York City's program to push food makers/restaurant chains to voluntarily lower salt in their products by 25% over the next five years as evidence of momentum.
Dr. Havas was most emphatic: "Congress needs to hold the FDA's feet to the fire on this," he declared. "It doesn't take 10 years, it could easily be done in five years. It's a matter of political will."
In response to the report, the Grocery Manufacturers Association issued a statement stressing that F&B companies share the goal of helping consumers reduce their sodium intake, that they have made "incremental reductions" in sodium content while maintaining "consumer taste preferences" via thousands of reduced/low/no sodium launches over the years, and that they welcome working with the FDA to develop a national sodium-reduction strategy.
Major CPG's introducing lower-sodium products in recent months include Kraft Foods, General Mills, Conagra, Campbell Soup Company, Sara Lee and PepsiCo.
Not surprisingly, food industry buzz in response to the IOM report includes many objections to sodium regulation. "Stop the nannying!," wrote one commenter on manufacturing.net. "The consumer holds the ultimate power and should. When consumers 'vote' for less salt, the manufacturers will respond in kind."
Rep. DeLauro acknowledged that there "will always be some opposition," but stressed that "we can't let opposition get in the way of the right way to go" when change "is in the interest of public health."
CSPI's site currently features a list of "10 saltiest packaged foods," headed by Hungry-Man Grilled Bourbon Steak Strips.