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Salt: Once again, Obama administration opts for voluntary efforts to deal with unhealthy food

Salt_featureA number of times, I’ve written about the how the Obama chooses voluntary efforts to deal with the food industry rather than, in this age of an obesity epidemic, regulating the amount of sugar, fat, and salt in processed food.

This time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it wants to work with food companies and restaurants to gradually adjust sodium levels in food using voluntary guidelines.

Voluntary guidelines will provide the agency with greater flexibility to make adjustments as new information becomes available and as the food supply changes, the agency said Wednesday.

The FDA is issuing draft voluntary targets for reducing sodium in commercially processed and prepared food in the short-term – two years – and over the long-term – 10 years – and requesting comments on them.

If the food industry adjusts sodium levels in food based on the FDA’s targets, it expect the short-term targets for sodium content in food would reduce sodium consumption to about 3,000 milligrams per day, and that the long-term targets would reduce sodium consumption to about 2,300 mg per day, the agency said.

Americans eat on average 3,400 mg of sodium per day, nearly 50 percent more than the 2,300 mg limit recommended by federal guidelines.

The majority of sodium consumed comes from processed and prepared foods, not the salt shaker. This makes it difficult for people to control how much sodium they consume.

High blood pressure, which has been linked to diets high in sodium, is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

“If fully achieved by the food industry, the voluntary sodium-reduction targets released today in draft form by the Food and Drug Administration could help prevent tens of thousands of premature deaths annually from heart attacks and strokes and tens of billions of dollars in medical costs,” said the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Researchers have estimated lowering U.S. sodium intake by about 40 percent over the next decade could save 500,000 lives and nearly $100 billion in healthcare costs.

The targets are part of the FDA’s response to a lawsuit that the center filed against the FDA last October seeking action on a 2005 petition in which CSPI asked the agency to reduce excess sodium – mostly from salt – in the food supply. In addition to the draft guidance, the FDA today formally denied the center’s petition that asked for mandatory, instead of voluntary, standards.

“We hope that industry will work cooperatively with the FDA and health experts to achieve the proposed reductions, which would benefit the health of all Americans,” said Michael F. Jacobson, president of the center. “While this is a voluntary approach as opposed to the mandatory approach we asked for and that the Institute of Medicine endorsed, it provides clear goals by which companies can be held accountable. And, it helps level the playing field for those companies that are already trying to use less salt in their foods.”

Countries from Argentina to South Africa to Turkey have set limits on major sources of sodium, while Finland requires a warning notice on high-sodium foods. In the United States, New York City requires restaurants to place warning symbols next to menu items that provide at least a whole day’s worth of sodium.

“If industry takes these targets seriously, this initiative could have the biggest impact,” Jacobson said.

He said the center has been calling on the FDA to protect Americans from excess sodium consumption for decades.

An April 2016 market basket survey conducted by the center of 451 packaged and restaurant foods found a slight four percent reduction in sodium over a 10-year period.

The FDA is providing 90 days for comment on the short-term targets and 150 days for comment on the long-term targets.

Copyright 2016, Rita R. Robison, Consumer Specialist

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