FDA Should Set Salt Limits for U.S. Food, Report Says

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration should limit the amount of salt in restaurant and packaged foods to reduce the risk of heart disease, a report ordered by Congress said.

The average American consumes about 50 percent more salt than recommended, and decreasing its use could prevent 100,000 deaths a year from heart disease and strokes, according to the report today by the nonprofit Institute of Medicine.

Voluntary efforts by the food industry and government health officials have failed to curtail salt use by U.S. consumers, the report said. The vast majority of sodium comes from packaged food and restaurant meals. A serving of Ruby Tuesday Inc.’s southwestern quesadillas contains 150 percent of the recommended daily sodium total and a blueberry scone from Panera Bread Co. contains a third of the daily sodium allotment, according to information posted on the restaurants’ Web sites.

“For 40 years we have known about the relationship between sodium and the development of hypertension and other life threatening diseases, but we have had virtually no success in cutting back the salt in our diets,” said the report.

“We certainly haven’t made a decision at this point to regulate sodium levels in food,” Meghan Scott, a spokeswoman for the FDA, said today in a telephone interview. “Given the risk of these levels, nothing is off the table.”

New Guidelines

The Washington Post said earlier today that the FDA planned this year to introduce guidelines that would lead to the first legal limits on salt. Scott said that article “went significantly farther than anyone in the agency or the industry is so far.”

A statement released by the agency later today said that the FDA “is not currently working on regulations nor have they made a decision to regulate sodium content in foods at this time.”

Congress asked the Institute of Medicine in 2008 to recommend strategies for reducing sodium intake in Americans’ diets. The Washington-based institute is part of the National Academy of Science, a nonprofit organization that acts as an adviser to the federal government.

Two lawmakers who chair committees that oversee the food industry and the FDA said they would push the agency to start limiting salt.

‘National Standards’

“The FDA should set national standards for sodium content in food,” Representative Rosa DeLauro said today on a conference call with reporters. DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, heads the House Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the FDA and agriculture programs. Food producers can’t be counted on to reduce sodium on their own, she said. “Self-regulation doesn’t work,” DeLauro said.

Senate health committee chairman Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, said he was “delighted” by the possibility of having the FDA regulate sodium content in foods. Harkin’s Senate committee has jurisdiction over the FDA.

“This is something I’ve advocated a long, long time,” Harkin said today in an interview. He intends to hold hearings on possible FDA actions, he said in a telephone news conference later in the day. “I do want to look at why it would take so long. I know you can’t do it overnight,” Harkin said.

Producers React

PepsiCo Inc., the world’s largest snack-food maker, has been working to reduce sodium in its products for “a long time,” spokesman Dave DeCecco said in an e-mail today. The Purchase, New York-based company last month said it planned to reduce the average amount of sodium in some global food brands by 25 percent by 2015.

Kraft Foods Inc. said last month that it plans to reduce sodium in more than 1,000 products by an average of 10 percent over the next two years for North American brands including Oscar Mayer and Velveeta.

ConAgra Foods Inc., the maker of Healthy Choice frozen dinners and Hunt’s ketchup, said in October it would cut a fifth of the salt in its products by 2015 as it tries to meet consumer demand for healthier food. “We applaud the IOM’s focus on sodium reduction, and we will continue the work we began many years ago to reduce sodium in our food,” ConAgra spokeswoman Teresa Paulsen said in an e-mail.

Campbell Soup Co., based in Camden, New Jersey, said it will work on helping gradual lower sodium levels while still appealing to consumer tastes. “As the government looks at recommendations for gradual sodium reduction, hopefully Campbell can share our insight on the challenges of making great-tasting, lower-sodium foods that people want to eat,” Debra Demuth, Campbell’s vice president for global nutrition & health, said in a statement today.

McDonald’s Waiting

McDonald’s Corp. said it was still waiting to see details of the report. “Regarding the discussion on sodium, we continue to engage experts to learn more about sodium and its effects on health and food safety,” Becca Hary, a spokeswoman for McDonald’s Corp., said in an e-mail. McDonald’s is based in Oak Brook, Illinois.

“This is an urgent public health problem but because we are confounded by factors of taste and the acceptability of the food supply to consumers, we came to the conclusion that the only way to do this is through a gradual step down,” said Jane Henney, a former FDA commissioner and chairwoman of the IOM panel that wrote the report. “This will take years to bring the intake level down, not weeks or even months.”

Americans should consume about one teaspoon daily though they eat about 50 percent more than that, Henney said.

A reduction in salt could save “as many as 100,000 lives annually and billions of dollars,” said Henney. “That’s why we urge the FDA to move expeditiously even though we know the process will take a long time.”

“If the reductions are done correctly” the public will not even notice because it will get used to the taste of food with less salt, Henney said.

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