With little publicity, the federal Food and Drug Administration has begun laying groundwork for one of the more audacious regulatory initiatives of the Obama administration: mandatory reductions in the salt content of processed foods in the supermarket aisle and at restaurants.
In a September 15 “Request for Comments, Data, and Information” (PDF) published in the Federal Register, the FDA solicits from the public “comments, data, and evidence relevant to the dietary intake of sodium as well as current and emerging approaches designed to promote sodium reduction.” Among the specific ideas it has in mind: setting federally prescribed “targets” for “stepwise” reductions in the amount of salt allowable in various foods, the phased nature of the reductions indicated because consumers’ “taste preference for sodium is acquired and can be modified.”
Various government programs (notably in Mayor Bloomberg’s New York City) already arm-twist producers into supposedly voluntary reductions, but the FDA notice hints broadly that voluntary measures will not suffice. Its public comment period ends next Tuesday, November 29; let’s hope the agency gets an earful from citizens about the importance of freedom and consumer choice.
As I noted last month in a Cato podcast with interviewer Caleb Brown, the FDA’s new initiative plunges it deeper into social engineering than it has gone in the past. It’s one thing to limit adulteration or contamination of foods, or the use of mysterious chemical additives; it is another to order the reformulation of recipes to reduce intake of a substance that 1) occurs naturally in virtually all foods; 2) is beneficial to health in many circumstances; and 3) has been sought out and purposely added to the human diet through recorded history.
As the FDA acknowledges, salt is far more than a flavor enhancer, capable of such miracles as turning vegetable soup into something small children will gladly eat. It also continues to be (as it has been through history) vital in preventing a wide range of bacterial spoilage and food poisoning dangers in the food supply. It also assists with texture, appearance, and shelf life. Consumers notice when it is missing, as Campbell’s found when it was forced by lagging sales to restore salt to its Select Harvest soup line, and as H.J. Heinz found when it faced a consumer revolt in Britain after reformulating its HP Sauce at the urging of the British government (see Telegraph and Daily Mail accounts).
As I noted a while back, the government’s dietary advice has changed often through the years, and its recommendations in retrospect have regularly proved to be unfounded and even damaging. Sure enough, reports have begun to come out that the salt panic has been exaggerated and may even pose some health dangers of its own. “New review questions benefit of cutting down on salt,” reported Reuters about a new review of more than 160 scientific studies published in the American Journal of Hypertension. “It’s time to end the war on salt,” per a July Scientific American article by Melinda Wenner Moyer.
And as for post-Thanksgiving dieting? As Reader’s Digest points out, eating more produce and less processed food is known to be a healthy step, and will much reduce your sodium intake. In the mean time, you can file comments here about whether you’d like to go on making these choices yourself, or have FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg make them for you.