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The FDA's Plan for Salt Reduction: Wishful Thinking Trumps Economic Reality

The FDA's response to Tuesday's Institute of Medicine report on the urgent need to cut sodium levels in the American diet reveals that the people overseeing food policy at the FDA just may be some of the most hopeful and optimistic souls on the planet.

The unambiguous conclusion of the 14-author IOM report is that 40 years of a "patchwork of voluntary approaches" by the food industry have failed to meaningfully reduce salt levels in packaged and restaurant food. The report notes that Americans are consuming on average 47% more sodium than than is safe and it urges the FDA to flex its regulatory muscle and create new limits mandating how much sodium can be safely used in various products.

And the FDA's response to this criticism of voluntary approaches? You guessed it, more voluntary approaches. What's that saying about the definition of crazy and expecting different outcomes? Apparently we are to believe that this time, after decades of half-attempts and shattered promises, it's going to be different.

It's easy to see why the FDA doesn't want to wade into the messy, contentious realm of actual regulation. Devising new salt standards for a gazillion different foods would be arduous and time-consuming.

But so is trying to remove an ingredient as integral to the taste of food as salt. When fancy restaurants use fresh, flavorful ingredients, it's easy to lay off the salt. But managers at large food companies insist on ingredients that are mixed, hydrolyzed, evaporated and extruded by massive machines and often heated at very high temperatures, not only for cooking but to kill bacteria. It's a punishing regimen that often kills flavor. Hence the salt, which for food-company managers looks like an economically efficient way of making sure their products still taste OK.

FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg, however, insists that a gentle touch will work wonders. "We believe we can achieve some substantial voluntary reductions," she said. After a Washington Post article erroneously stated that the FDA was planning on legal limits for salt, the FDA issued a statement saying that it was working on no such thing.

It's true that the packaged food industry has recently stepped up efforts reduce sodium. General Mills (GIS) and ConAgra (CAG) have both pledged to cut levels across the board by 20% by 2015. Kraft (KFT) will do an average of 10% over the next two years.

But the IOM report considered such pledges and still concluded that they wouldn't be enough. What's needed, the report stated, is mandatory action that will create a level playing field, something that's "critical to any successful effort to reduce the sodium content of the overall food supply."

And this the point the IOM is making -- that packaged food manufacturers and restaurant companies -- who've barely even started to address the issue -- aren't going to tackle this vexing problem in any sustainable way unless they're forced to.

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