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“Voluntary” FDA Sodium Targets May Bind Food Companies

FDA yesterday released so-called “voluntary” targets for sodium reduction for 150 categories of foods.  A spreadsheet issued by the agency details baseline sodium content for each of the categories and lists short-term and long-term targets.  In its draft guidance, the agency says it “recognizes the important role of sodium in food for microbial safety, stability, and other functions . . . This guidance is not intended to undermine these functions, but to provide measurable voluntary draft short-term (2 year) and long-term (10 year) goals for sodium content.”

The draft guidance has two comment periods on different sections. One is for 90 days and the other for 150 days.

Different food categories have different sodium targets, and some products will have more room for reductions than others. The agency singled out salad dressing as an example, saying the amount of sodium ranges from 150 mg per hundred grams to more than 2,000. Wheat bread ranges from 220 mg to 671 mg according to the FDA announcement.

Some companies have already been reducing sodium content without much fanfare as market research studies show some consumers actually avoid reduced sodium products because they anticipate that the foods will taste bland.

Other food companies are taking issue with FDA’s targets, citing a 2013 Institute of Medicine study that calls into question the benefits of reducing sodium consumption.

FDA’s voluntary program is based on a similar effort undertaken in the United Kingdom between 2003 and 2011. The UK program led to a 15% reduction in sodium consumption in that country.

The FDA says it wants to enter into a “dialog” with the industry, but do not count on consumer groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) to do the same.  That organization has been known to use an advocacy policy of “name and shame,” e.g. praising companies that begin to comply with the voluntary targets and waging public campaigns against those that do not.

Those FDA voluntary targets may not be so “voluntary” after all.

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