Food lawyer says F.D.A. may act on sodium

by Jeff Gelski
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The generally recognized as safe (GRAS) status for salt appears safe, but the Food and Drug Administration could regulate sodium in other ways, said Robert A. Hahn, a principal attorney specializing in food law for Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Bode Matz PC, Washington.

"I think the biggest question is what will the F.D.A. do for the Daily Value of sodium," he said Feb. 27 in Chicago at "Food Technology Presents: Developing and Marketing Products for Consumer Health & Wellness," a conference run by the Institute of Food Technologists.

The F.D.A.’s Daily Value for sodium stands at 2,400 mg or less. Mr. Hahn said the F.D.A. may lower it to 2,300 mg or less, which would not rank as a big change. Another less likely option, but one advocated by the American Medical Association (A.M.A.) and more challenging for industry, is lowering the Daily Value for sodium to 1,500 mg or less, he said.

Mr. Hahn said it’s possible the F.D.A. will propose voluntary limits for salt in processed foods. The F.D.A. also may change the lower limit for sodium in foods eligible for a low-sodium claim. For example, the limit may fall to 96 mg per serving from 140 mg per serving.

Mr. Hahn added the food and beverage industries should remain wary of Congress taking action on sodium, such as including sodium in any potential nutrition symbols. Furthermore, state and local governments could act on sodium just as they have done with trans-fatty acids, he said.

The A.M.A. has urged the F.D.A. to revoke the GRAS status of salt and to develop regulatory measures to limit sodium in processed and restaurant foods. The F.D.A. already ruled on the GRAS issue 26 years ago, Mr. Hahn said. In 1982, the F.D.A. said to take away the GRAS status for salt it would have the burden of showing that salt is a poisonous or deleterious substance that adulterates food. Setting and enforcing limits of sodium in food would be an "extraordinary regulatory burden," the F.D.A. also said in 1982.

Taking away salt’s GRAS status would not solve the problem of hypertension because more than just excess sodium intake causes hypertension, said Dr. Roger Clemens, a professor in the School of Pharmacy at the University of Southern California. Speaking at the I.F.T. event, Mr. Clemens said obesity, aging, pregnancy, menopause, genetics, insufficient exercise, medications, stress and an inadequate amount of dietary potassium are other causes.

"This is really a complex story," he said of hypertension problems. "It’s not one you can fix overnight."

Mr. Clemens’ advice for battling hypertension: Balance, moderation and variety with appropriate exercise leads to improved health and wellness.

"This is my message," he said.


A possible course

The Food and Drug Administration could take action on salt and its sodium content in processed foods and beverages in several ways, said Robert A. Hahn, a principal attorney who specializes in food law for Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Bode Matz PC, Washington. Some possibilities are:

 Short term

• Propose voluntary limits or targets for salt content of processed foods and work with industry members to reduce salt content.

• Authorize nutrient content claims for sodium reduction. For example, a company could say, "10% less sodium than our regular chips."

 Long term

• Lower the Daily Value for sodium from its current 2,400 mg or less. It’s more likely the Daily Value would fall to 2,300 mg or less than to 1,500 mg or less.

• Seek incremental changes because of palatability concerns.

• Conduct consumer research on the palatability of foods with lower sodium content.

• Issue federal standards for the use of nutrition symbols that include limits on salt and/or sodium.

• Amend standards of identity to allow salt substitutes.

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