Will voluntary salt-reduction guidelines be derailed by last-minute lobbying?

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Dive Brief:

  • A “stealth lobbying campaign” by a handful of food-related trade groups to derail voluntary salt-reduction guidelines has exposed lingering differences within the industry about the impending policy change, according to Politico.
  • FDA guidance setting new sodium targets could be sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget in the next few weeks, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told Politico the week before he left office April 12. “I think we’ve been very transparent about this all along,” he said. “I don’t think people should be at all surprised about where the FDA landed on this.”
  • Politico reported the American Bakers Association, American Frozen Food Institute, International Dairy Foods Association, North American Meat Institute, National Restaurant Association and SNAC International, which represents snack manufacturers, want to meet with OMB officials to share information showing it would be expensive for the industry to meet the new sodium targets.

Dive Insight:

The adoption of salt reduction guidelines continues to meet opposition. The FDA initially proposed voluntary salt-reduction targets nearly three years ago under the Obama administration. The agency acted following a 2015 lawsuit filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest against the agency for failing to address a petition for salt reduction filed 10 years earlier.

The FDA’s goal is to limit consumption to 3,000 milligrams daily within two years — a timeline Politico said the Trump administration is expected to endorse — and 2,300 mg each day over 10 years. However, average sodium intake per day in the U.S. is about 3,400 mg, with much of that consumed in the form of processed and commercially prepared foods such as bread, pizza and soup.

Industry groups lobbied Congress to keep the FDA from adopting those initial guidelines until the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine could do a comprehensive review of studies about how much sodium the public should consume. That report, published earlier this year, reduced intake recommendations set in 2005 after reviewing evidence in the U.S. and Canada.

Despite a lack of official guidelines, many manufacturers such as Nestlé, Campbell, Unilever and PepsiCo have already trimmed the amount of sodium in their products in response to consumer preferences. Natural salt-reduction strategies are also gaining traction, with replacement ingredients made from mushrooms, milk and yeast extracts. 

Still, many manufacturers aren’t keen on adjusting to new guidelines, even if they’re voluntary. Reformulating products will be more costly and risk alienating consumers if the food doesn’t taste the same as the original.  

“Food producers are placed under intense pressure to abide by the arbitrary limits despite the use of the term ‘voluntary’ and even when food producers do manage to safely lower the sodium in their foods they almost never meet the targets,” the now-defunct Salt Institute said in a statement issued when the proposed guidelines were first announced.

Politico noted consumer advocacy groups such as CSPI and some big food companies — including Nestlé, Unilever, Mars and Danone North America, which are founding members of the Sustainable Food Policy Alliance — support the voluntary sodium guidelines, noting the health benefits to consumers. 

Gottlieb also supports sodium reduction for public health reasons, but he’s no longer heading the FDA. However, he indicated to Politico just before stepping down that food manufacturers might get something less palatable if they don’t support voluntary guidelines now, including state- and/or city-regulated legislation that could vary wildly.  

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