Hold the salt

The Food and Drug Administration is
planning an unprecedented effort to gradually reduce the salt consumed each day
by Americans, saying that less sodium in everything from soup to nuts would
prevent thousands of deaths from hypertension and heart disease. The
initiative, to be launched this year, would eventually lead to the first legal
limits on the amount of salt allowed in food products.

The government intends to work with
the food industry and health experts to reduce sodium gradually over a period
of years to adjust the American palate to a less salty diet, according to FDA
sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the initiative had not
been formally announced.

Officials have not determined the
salt limits. In a complicated undertaking, the FDA would analyze the salt in
spaghetti sauces, breads and thousands of other products that make up the $600
billion food and beverage market, sources said. Working with food
manufacturers, the government would set limits for salt in these categories, designed
to gradually ratchet down sodium consumption. The changes would be calibrated
so that consumers barely notice the modification.

The legal limits would be open to
public comment, but administration officials do not think they need additional
authority from Congress.

“This is a 10-year program,”
one source said. “This is not rolling off a log. We’re talking about a comprehensive
phase-down of a widely used ingredient. We’re talking about embedded tastes in
a whole generation of people.”

The FDA, which regulates most
processed foods, would be joined in the effort by the U.S. Department of
Agriculture, which oversees meat and poultry.

Until now, the government has
pushed the food industry to voluntarily reduce salt and tried to educate
consumers about the dangers of excessive sodium. But in a study to be released
Wednesday, an expert panel convened by the Institute of Medicine concludes that
those measures have failed. The panel will recommend that the government take
action, according to sources familiar with the findings.