Food industry, American Medical Association square off over salt

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — Disputants in the long-standing controversy over whether the Food and Drug Administration should remove from salt its "generally recognized as safe" status and instead regulate it as a food additive voiced their positions during a Nov. 29 hearing. The F.D.A. convened the hearing in response to the most recent petition of the Center for Science in the Public Interest calling on the agency to revise the regulatory status of salt and establish special labeling requirements for salt and sodium. The F.D.A. betrayed no indication it planned to revoke salt’s GRAS status or adopt labeling changes.

Among those providing testimony were Dr. Robert Earl, senior director of nutrition policy of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, and Dr. Stephen Havas, vice-president for science and public health at the American Medical Association.

Mr. Earl, G.M.A.’s senior director of nutrition policy, said, "There is absolutely no reason for F.D.A. to revoke the GRAS status of salt." He said salt is an important ingredient in many foods that provides flavor and also preserves and protects foods. Additionally, salt and sodium occur naturally in many foods.

"In today’s marketplace, consumers have available to them a broad range of foods containing no sodium or low sodium, or with no added salt," Mr. Earl said. "It is also important to note that food companies have been very successful at making incremental reductions in salt levels in food products over time that are silent to the consumer. Many food companies have reformulated products or reduced the use of sodium in processed foods. Processing and packaging technologies also allow for less salt or sodium."

Mr. Earl said sodium content has been noted on the Nutrition Facts Panel for more than a decade.

"When it comes to public health, F.D.A. should focus its policy priorities on improving overall food choices and dietary patterns, rather than unwarranted regulatory changes," he said.

Richard L. Hanneman, president of the Salt Institute, agreed with the G.M.A. that evidence does not support stripping salt of its GRAS status.

"Salt deserves its reputation as the original GRAS substance," Mr. Hanneman said. He added before any action is taken regarding salt’s GRAS status or imposing new labeling requirements, the federal government should fund a controlled trial of the question: Will sodium-reduced diets improve health outcomes?

"Let’s do the study and find out the truth," Mr. Hanneman said.

Mr. Havas said immediate action must be taken to reduce "excess" salt in food. He asked the F.D.A. to set strict limits on salt in processed foods and work more diligently to educate the public on the benefits of a low-sodium diet.

Mr. Havas said "excess sodium" greatly increases the chance of developing hypertension, heart disease and stroke.

"Research shows most Americans consume two to three times the amount of sodium that is healthy, with an estimated 75% to 80% of the daily intake of sodium coming from processed and restaurant foods," he said. "Reducing the salt in our diets by 50% over the next 10 years could save at least 150,000 lives each year."

He outlined the A.M.A.’s four principal proposals. First, the F.D.A. should revoke the GRAS status of salt and develop regulatory measures to limit sodium in processed and restaurant foods. Second, the F.D.A. and food manufacturers should work toward a minimum of a 50% reduction in the amount of sodium in processed foods, fast-food products and restaurant meals over the next decade. Third, interested stakeholders should establish partnerships to educate consumers about the benefits of long-term, moderate reductions in sodium intake. And fourth, the F.D.A. should improve labeling to assist consumers in understanding the amount of sodium contained in processed food products and develop label markings and warnings for foods high in sodium.

Mr. Havas said current F.D.A. efforts to educate the public on the benefits of reducing salt intake have not been effective. He pointed out sodium intake has risen 55% from the early 1970s to 2000.

"The current back-of-pack labeling system is inadequate," he said.

Mr. Havas suggested the F.D.A. consider three approaches to reducing sodium intake. The first drew on the example of the United Kingdom’s food safety agency, which divided foods into 30 major categories and recommended companies’ products contain no more than the median levels then extant in such products. Another approach would designate any product containing more than 50 mg/oz as high in sodium and require a front-of-product warning label advising consumers of the fact. The third would be to require a 5% per year reduction for all products designated as high in sodium.

"Each of these three approaches would lead to major reductions in sodium content by food manufacturers," Mr. Havas said.

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