New front opens in the battle over sodium

by Jay Sjerven
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Jay Sjerven

A provision contained in the fiscal year 2017 Agriculture Appropriations Bill approved by the House Committee on Appropriations on April 19 invited battle on a new front with regard to federal government efforts to encourage consumers to reduce sodium intake and food manufacturers to reduce the sodium content of products. Language in the bill would prevent the Food and Drug Administration from issuing draft guidance to industry on sodium levels in foods that was in the works.

The bill also would delay the implementation of Tier 2 maximum sodium levels in school meals scheduled to take effect with the 2017-18 school year “until the latest scientific research establishes the reduction is beneficial for children.” This provision was similar to that contained in the discussion draft for a bill reauthorizing the nation’s child nutrition programs that will be considered by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce (see Food Business News of April 19, Page 1).

Looming behind the Appropriations Committee’s actions was the debate over how much sodium in diets is too much with most medical health advocates and organizations arguing consumers should lower sodium intake while others suggested current consumption levels were no threat to health or even were beneficial.

An amendment offered by Representative Andy Harris of Maryland and accepted by the committee stated, “None of the funds made available by this act may be used by the F.D.A. to develop, issue, promote, or advance any guidelines or regulations applicable to food manufacturers for population-wide sodium reduction actions until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the National Academy of Medicine completes a dietary reference intake (D.R.I.) report with respect to sodium.”

Bill would block F.D.A. guidance on sodium in packaged foods.

That the F.D.A. intended to issue such guidance was confirmed by Susan Mayne, director of the F.D.A.’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, in comments made before the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s recent Science Forum held in Washington.

“Our emphasis is on releasing draft voluntary (sodium) targets so we can begin dialogue with industry,” Dr. Mayne said.

Nancy Brown, chief executive officer of the American Heart Association, said the A.H.A. was troubled that the bill would prevent the F.D.A. from issuing voluntary sodium guidelines before the D.R.I. report on sodium is updated.

“The voluntary guidelines would make a significant difference in limiting the amount of salt consumed by the American public,” Ms. Brown said. “So while we support an updated D.R.I., we are dismayed that the sole purpose for this bill language is to delay the release of these guidelines. The association asks that Congress not interfere with the guidelines that would have a positive impact on so many American lives.”

The F.D.A. has indicated Americans on average consume more than 3,400 mg of sodium per day. The new Dietary Guidelines for Americans issued in January recommend adults and children ages 14 years and older limit sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg per day, the equivalent of 1 teaspoon of salt. The F.D.A. also has noted 75% of dietary sodium intake comes from eating packaged and restaurant foods compared with 11% from salt added when cooking or eating in the home, hence the agency’s interest in issuing a draft guidance to industry recommending how sodium content in food products may be reduced.

Lori Roman, president of the Salt Institute, in an April 11 letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell, suggested “the F.D.A. efforts to have voluntary salt reductions in food products be abandoned.” Ms. Roman said the F.D.A.’s plan to issue a guidance to industry on sodium content of food products was the response to pressure from the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

“If the science was there to support such an effort, the call for voluntary salt reductions in food products would have occurred years ago,” Ms. Roman said. “As it happens, during the last 5 to 10 years, by far the preponderance of evidence has mitigated against population-wide salt reduction.”

Ms. Roman in the same letter said “the portions of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines and the 2015-20 Dietary Guidelines that pertain to sodium are fatally flawed and should be withdrawn because they are not based on a preponderance of the scientific and medical evidence.”

Food manufacturers in recent years voluntarily have developed and offered many reduced-sodium products or versions of existing products, but much more may have to be done if consumers are to reduce sodium intake to meet the level recommended in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Some companies have decided to adopt an even more proactive stance.

Fiona Dawson, global president, Mars Food, Drinks and Multi-sales, said. “The food industry has already made great strides in reducing sodium, but we have more work to do to help consumers reduce sodium intake. We support the release of the U.S. F.D.A.’s draft sodium reduction guidance, because we believe it’s important to begin a stakeholder dialogue about the role industry can play in this critical part of consumers’ diets.”

Ms. Dawson said Mars Food’s goal is to reduce sodium in its products by an average of 20% by 2021.

She acknowledged in order to maintain the authentic nature of some recipes, some Mars Food products are higher in salt, added sugar or fat.

“As these products are not intended to be eaten daily, Mars Food will provide guidance to consumers on-pack and on its web site regarding how often these meal offerings should be consumed within a balanced diet,” she said. “The Mars Food web site will be updated within the next few months with a list of ‘occasional’ products — those to be enjoyed once a week — and a list of ‘everyday’ products — including those to be reformulated over the next five years to reduce sodium, sugar, or fat.”


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