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Is The FDA Ready To Take On The Powerful Food Industry?

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SETH PERLMAN
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SETH PERLMAN

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed voluntary guidelines on Wednesday for the food industry to reduce the amount of salt that Americans consume each day. Although the agency stopped short of mandating change by law, the guidelines still represent a major — and contentious — shift in government policy.

Until recently, the FDA recognized salt as “generally safe,” leaving manufacturers to add as much of the ingredient to food as they like. Now, some health advocates are hopeful that Wednesday’s guidelines will eventually become legal limits on the amount of salt allowed in food products.

The guidelines touch on 150 categories of processed and restaurant foods. The proposed short term (2 year) goals can be achieved with current technology, while the long term (10 year) goals “may require technical innovation.” For example, in 2010, snack food company Pepsico developed a new shape for salt crystals that the company predicted would cut sodium levels in its Lay’s potato chips by 25 percent, and more companies could experiment with similar tweaks.

The majority of sodium intake comes from processed and prepared foods, not the saltshaker.

The FDA says the goal is to help Americans “gradually reduce sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams per day” — a nearly 33 percent reduction from today’s level of salt consumption.

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Nine out of ten Americans consume too much salt, putting them at risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease. According to the CDC, if the average American decreased their daily sodium intake by 400 milligrams, 32,000 heart attacks and 20,000 strokes could be prevented annually.

But Americans don’t have as much control over their salt consumption as it might appear. “The majority of sodium intake comes from processed and prepared foods, not the saltshaker,” according to the FDA.

The FDA currently regulates hundreds of food additives with arcane-sounding names. Adding salt to the list, however, may prove difficult.

The reason is not, as some news outlets have suggested, that the government will face pushback from the scientific community. Although a few studies have shown inconsistent findings about the optimal level of salt intake, CDC director Tom Frieden argues in the Journal of the American Medical Association that “these reports have created a ‘false aura of scientific controversy around dietary salt.’”

“The totality of the scientific evidence supports sodium reduction from current intake levels,” Susan Mayne, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, added in an interview with The New York Times.

So, considering the FDA’s confidence in the science, why didn’t the agency make the guidelines mandatory?

Critics argue the government chose to avoid a costly confrontation with the food lobby. “I’m upset with the White House,” Sen. Tom Harkin (D) told Reuters. “They went wobbly in the knees. When it comes to kids’ health, they shouldn’t go wobbly in the knees.”

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It wouldn’t be the first time the Obama administration avoided such a confrontation. As ThinkProgress has previously reported, the food industry may have influenced the First Lady’s Let’s Move! Campaign to all but drop an effort to impose legal regulations on how food is marketed to children.

The federal government did propose food marketing guidelines in 2011, but — as with the new sodium guidelines — they were voluntary.

The new nutrition label CREDIT: FDA
The new nutrition label CREDIT: FDA

Despite these criticisms, the Obama administration has done a lot to promote healthy food consumption — all in the face of unprecedented spending by the food industry. In Obama’s first term, food and beverage groups spent more than $175 million in lobbying, dwarfing the $83 million spent in the last three years of the Bush administration.

The administration’s most recent success was the finalization of the new Nutrition Facts label, designed to promote healthier choices. The label makes the calorie and serving count bigger and bolder, but the biggest victory over the food lobby was the addition of an “added sugars” count. Much like the “total fat” label, which is broken down to show trans and saturated fats, the new carbs label will show a count of sugar added during the manufacturing process.

After a “trans fat” label was added to the Nutrition Facts label in 2006, food manufacturers scrambled to eliminate the ingredient. If the fate of trans fats is any lesson, Bloomberg News correctly points out, the FDA’s new label could “constitute the beginning of the end of added sugar.”

Cory Herro is an intern at ThinkProgress.