By Sally Squires
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 30, 2007
A consumer group prodded the Food and Drug Administration yesterday to regulate salt as a food additive, arguing that excessive salt consumption by Americans may be responsible for more than 100,000 deaths a year.
The government has long placed salt in a "generally recognized as safe" or GRAS category, which grandfathers in a huge list of familiar food ingredients. But in an FDA hearing yesterday, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) urged the agency to enforce tougher regulations for sodium.
Doing so "lays the foundation for saving tens of thousands of lives per year," said CSPI Director Michael Jacobson in an interview after the hearing. It "just has tremendous potential to health and to cut health-care costs."
CSPI first petitioned the FDA in 1978 to regulate salt in food more closely and has since sued the agency unsuccessfully in federal court twice over the ingredient. A 2005 petition to the FDA by CSPI prompted the agency to hold hearings yesterday to review sodium chloride's status in food.
"After 25 years of inactivity, the FDA is taking the salt issue seriously," Jacobson said. "They're really gathering information . . . and getting an earful from all sides."
The average American consumes 3,353 milligrams of sodium every day -- more than twice what the Institute of Medicine says is adequate for healthy people and 1,000 milligrams more than the 2,300 milligrams set as a daily limit by the 2005 U.S. Dietary Guidelines. The intake considered adequate is far lower: 1,500 milligrams for those 9 to 50 years old; 1,300 milligrams for those 51 to 70, and 1,200 milligrams for people 70 and older -- or less than what is found in a ham and Swiss cheese sandwich on whole wheat with mustard.
Salt intake is closely linked to stroke, kidney disease and high blood pressure. An estimated 65 million Americans have high blood pressure, a condition that threatens 45 million more adults in the United States, according to the American Heart Association.
As a prelude to yesterday's hearing, CSPI and the Grocery Manufacturers Association held a joint conference in October to encourage food companies, restaurants, health professionals and government agencies to help Americans limit sodium. Seventy-five percent of the salt consumed in the United States is found in processed foods bought at grocery stores, vending machines, restaurants and fast-food franchises. How best to cut sodium in the American diet is greatly debated. CSPI advocates more federal regulation. Industry groups want reductions to be voluntary.
"There is no reason for the FDA to revoke the GRAS status of salt," said Robert Earl, the Grocery Manufacturers' senior director of nutrition policy. "It should look for alternative approaches to support industry's efforts to reduce sodium in food. There are lots and lots of companies trying to reduce salt."
Five years ago, ConAgra Foods, which produces Healthy Choice, Banquet, Chef Boyardee, Orville Redenbacher and Smart Pop foods, began looking for ways to cut sodium, said its director of nutrition, Patty Packard. "We found that we could fairly easily remove 15 to 20 percent of sodium in most products," Packard said. "That totals 2.8 million pounds of salt that we have removed on an annual basis."