Fast action to limit salt in processed foods pushed by Sen. Harkin, Rep. DeLauro

By Lyndsey Layton
Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Two members of Congress urged the Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday to move quickly to limit the amount of salt in processed foods, calling the matter a "public health crisis" that demanded a swift response from government.

"I understand they want to do it in a phased kind of a deal, but I don't want it to be too long," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. "This is crying out for change that's long overdue."

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) agreed, saying in a conference call with Harkin and reporters: "I don't want this to take 10 years. . . . This is a public health crisis."

Their comments came after the release Tuesday of a report of experts, convened by the Institute of Medicine, that found that most Americans are consuming dangerous levels of sodium and that voluntary efforts by the food industry to reduce salt have failed. The report recommended that the FDA immediately launch efforts to limit salt levels over a period of years to allow consumers to adjust to less salty food.

"Clearly, salt is essential; it is a good thing; we need it," said Jane Henney of the University of Cincinnati, who chaired the expert panel. "But the levels we're taking in right now are far beyond the maximum levels we need. We should be taking in about a teaspoon a day, but we're consuming about a teaspoon and a half, and it's creating tremendous risk in terms of development of hypertension and numerous diseases."

The FDA plans to work with the food industry and health experts to gradually reduce the salt consumed each day by Americans. The initiative, when launched later this year, would eventually lead to the first legal limits on the amount of salt allowed in food.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the food and beverage industry, said Tuesday that it wants to continue voluntary efforts to reduce sodium in processed foods and restaurant meals and that regulation is unnecessary.

"There's certainly a role for government [regulation] in the school environment -- school lunches and vending machines," said Scott Faber, vice president for federal affairs at the association. "But it's less clear that the government has a role with regard to products that are sold widely throughout the marketplace."

Currently, there are no limits on the amount of salt manufacturers can use in products.

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