Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Mars Becomes First Food Giant to Call for FDA Salt Guidelines

Mars Inc., the privately held maker of Uncle Ben’s Rice and packaged meals, is calling on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to issue voluntary guidelines for how much salt should be in processed food.

The announcement is the first of its kind by a foodmaker in the U.S. It comes as Mars Food, the company’s Brussels-based packaged-food division, vows to reduce the amount of sodium in its products by an average of 20 percent by 2021. Mars also said each jar of its tomato-based products will have at least one serving of vegetables and that it plans to cut added sugar in a “limited number of sauces and light meals” over the next two years.

The FDA is working on salt guidelines for processed food that are expected to be released in coming months, and Mars Food wanted to weigh in on the issue, said Fiona Dawson, the division’s global president.

“It’s the right time to engage in the debate,” Dawson said Wednesday in an interview. “We see the industry moving really well when we have voluntary guidelines.”

Mars had net sales of $33 billion last year, making it one of the world’s largest foodmakers. The current initiative is limited to Mars Food, which doesn’t include its popular candy products such as M&M’s and Snickers. The food division, which counts the U.S. and U.K. as its top markets, is retooling products to meet sugar and salt guidelines established by the World Health Organization.

Other companies are also taking steps to curb salt in their products. General Mills Inc. said in December that it had cut the amount of sodium in 10 product categories, including pizza and cereal, by at least 18 percent. Nestle SA, Hormel Foods Corp., and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., -- the biggest grocery seller in the U.S. -- are among the companies that have also reduced salt in their products.

‘Deadliest Ingredient’

An Obama administration plan to push food companies to reduce salt has been stalled for several years. Recent reports have indicated that voluntary guidelines could be released early this summer. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which calls sodium “perhaps the deadliest ingredient in our food supply,” sued the FDA in October to force the agency to issue mandatory salt-reduction targets.

The FDA is expected to respond to the lawsuit by June 15, according to CSPI. The advocacy group had originally filed a citizens petition in 2005 calling for the FDA to take action on salt limits and sued after waiting 10 years for a response, a spokesman said.

Issuing voluntary guidelines for salt reduction could be the FDA’s response to the lawsuit, according to Bloomberg Intelligence. Mars Food expects that whatever happens in the U.S., using the WHO standards will put the company ahead of the curve.

“We’ve looked across the globe, and we think we’ll be ahead of local guidelines,” Dawson said.

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