FDA should regulate salt, panel says

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The Food and Drug Administration should regulate the amount of salt added to foods to help Americans cut their high sodium intake, which can lead to high blood pressure, kidney failure and strokes, an influential federal panel said on Tuesday.

The Institute of Medicine said this was needed because Americans get most of their salt from processed and restaurant food, and merely telling them to eat less salt has not worked.

Meghan Scott, a spokeswoman for the FDA, which sponsored the IOM report, said the agency has not yet decided whether to regulate salt in U.S. foods. “We are not right now working on regulations,” she said, but the agency is considering the panel’s recommendations.

Scott said the FDA has been meeting with food companies, which have already begun making plans to lower salt content.

Eating too much salt can cause high blood pressure, which the Institute of Medicine in February declared a “neglected disease” that costs the U.S. health system $73 billion a year.

The institute, one of the National Academies of Sciences, advises the U.S. government and policymakers in reports that are considered the definitive word on various medical issues.

“For 40 years we have known about the relationship between sodium and the development of hypertension and other life threatening diseases, but we have had virtually no success in cutting back the salt in our diets,” Jane Henney of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine in Ohio, who chaired the Institute of Medicine panel, said in a statement.

“The best way to accomplish this is to provide companies the level playing field they need so they are able to work across the board to reduce salt in the food supply.”

Henney said on a conference call that lowering sodium intake could save 100,000 lives a year and billions in healthcare costs.

“There is now overwhelming evidence that we must treat sodium reduction as a critical public health priority,” said Dr. Walter Willett of Harvard School of Public Health and a member of the Institute of Medicine.

The panel said companies should be allowed to reduce sodium on a step-by-step basis so that they do not lose customers due to sudden changes in flavor, the panel of experts said.

Many U.S. food companies have already begun.

PepsiCo Inc. last month said it would cut salt, sugar and saturated fats by 25 percent in some of its top-selling Pepsi, Frito-Lay and Quaker brands by 2015.

Kraft Foods also said last month it plans to cut sodium by an average of 10 percent across its North American portfolio over the next two years.

“Overall, our plans call for the elimination of more than 10 million pounds of salt from some of North America’s most popular foods,” Kraft spokeswoman Susan Davison said by email.

Campbell Soup Co. said in a statement it has been voluntarily reducing sodium in its soups for decades.

General Mills, maker of Cheerios cereal and Progresso soups, last week said it is stepping up its goals to cut sodium by 20 percent across several product categories by 2015.

People only need about 1,500 mg of salt a day to maintain bodily functions, but the average American eats twice that, more than 3,400 milligrams a day, or the equivalent of 1.5 teaspoons of salt.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association said in a statement the food industry supports the overall goal of the IOM report to help consumers reduce their sodium intake.

The American Heart Association hopes it becomes mandatory federal policy, spokeswoman Dr. Alice Lichtenstein said.

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Senator Tom Harkin said on a conference call they would pressure the FDA to regulate salt intake in the U.S. food supply.

“My view of self regulation is that it has not worked in the past,” DeLauro said. “We need to move this along.”

Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen, editing by Anthony Boadle