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.
Alarm over huge increase in salt intake
Currently, manufacturers can use as much salt as they like in products because under federal standards, it falls into the category deemed "generally recognized as safe." Foodmakers are merely required to report the amount on nutrition labels.
But for the past 30 years, health officials have grown increasingly alarmed as salt intake has increased with the explosion in processed foods and restaurant meals. Most adults consume about twice the government's daily recommended limit, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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.