The Trump administration is preparing tofinalize a policy urgingless salt in processed foods — one of former President Barack Obama’s signature nutrition priorities.
The FDA is expected this year to release targets for how much sodium should be used in a wide variety of foods,from pickles to pizza. The goal is to get Americans to gradually eat less salt and reduce cardiovascular disease. The sodium targets would be voluntary.
But somesegments of the food industry are now mounting alate attempt to get the administration to pause the effort — a stealth lobbying campaign that’s laid bare a rift between food companies for and against setting federal sodium goals.
Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who departed his post on Friday, told POLITICO last week that guidance establishing sodium targets isin the final stages of clearance at the agency, suggesting it will head to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review in a matter of weeks.
“I think we’ve been very transparent about this all along,” Gottlieb said, adding: “I don’t think people should be at all surprised about where the FDA landed on this.”
Surprised or not, several major trade associations are now trying to meet withOMBofficials to present a new study showing that meeting FDA’s sodium targets would be an expensive undertaking for companies across the industry.
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The pushback is coming from the American Bakers Association, American Frozen Food Institute, International Dairy Foods Association, North American Meat Institute, National Restaurant Association and SNAC International, a trade association that represents more than 400 snack manufacturers, includingPepsiCo.
“We have engaged throughout the policy process, highlighting opportunities and challenges, as a part of that dialogue,” the industry associations said in a statement to POLITICO. “We believe an OMB review will be a helpful part of the policymaking process.”
The associations said they are stepping in because they want FDA’s sodium reduction goals to be “a success.”
The Trump administration’sefforts to push through salt-reduction targets is revealing a growing divide withinthe food industry.Somecompanies are trying to adapt to consumer demands for more transparency and healthier, less-processed foods, while others are resisting government attempts to set guidelines for the industry.
But other companies argue the voluntary targets willsaddle them with significant costs and technical challenges, because it may be difficult for manufacturers to meet some of the goals without compromising on taste, food safety or shelf-life.But a growing list of food companies are now on FDA’s side either because they back the agency’splan or because they see government intervention in nutrition as a fait accompli.
One of FDA’s leading proponents is the Sustainable Food Policy Alliance, a new group that represents industry heavyweights Nestlé, Unilever, Mars Inc. and Danone North America. Those companies all left the food industry’s main lobby, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, in recent years over similar policy disagreements. The alliance this week defended FDA’s efforts tofinalizevoluntary sodium targets.
“The Sustainable Food Policy Alliance opposes any efforts to ignore evidence-based science on sodium reduction or undermine FDA’s voluntary sodium reduction targets,” the group said in a statement to POLITICO. “We firmly agree with FDA and nutrition experts that reducing sodium levels can be a powerful public health action to reduce blood pressure, a leading risk factor for heart disease.”
Others, like the Kraft-Heinz Company, arestaying out of the fight. The Grocery Manufacturers Association is also not engaging on the issue.
The divisions over salt show how much the food industry’s posture in Washington has changed in a few short years.
The sodium goals sparked widespread opposition from the food industry when the Obama administration first floated them.FDA guidance isnon-binding, but many in the industry feel significant pressure to comply.
Under Obama, FDA proposed two sets of sodium targets for nearly 150 food categories. One set encouraged the industry to comply within two years, the other within a decade. The Trump FDA is expected to finalize only short-term reduction targets, but the final details aren’t known.
After FDA proposed the targets in 2016, several industry groups lobbied Capitol Hill to block the agency from working on them until the National Academy of Medicine completed a review of scientific research on how much sodium people should be eating. The academy completed its review last month and confirmed the government’s long-standing advice to cut back on salt, paving the way for FDA to act.
Gottlieb, a vocal proponent of the agency’s work on salt, proclaimed last year that there is “no single more effective public health action related to nutrition than the reduction of sodium in the diet” — a statement that put him squarely in line with public health groups on the issue.
In theinterview with POLITICO last week, Gottlieb warned the food industry against fighting the sodium goals.
“If the packaged food industry wants to start a lobbying campaign against voluntary guidelines, I think they risk ending up with multiple regimes in different states and municipalities,” Gottlieb said. “Then they’re going to be looking for federal legislation and preemption.”
New York City’s aggressive action on sodium reduction appears to have already influenced the industry. The city’s health department launched an initiative back in 2009 to get food companies to commit to voluntary sodium reduction goals.
The city got several major companies to sign on to the effort, including Starbucks, Kraft-Heinz, Unilever and Hostess. Some data suggests the nudge from the city helped move the industry: One study found that between 2009 and 2014, there was a 6.8 percent reduction in sodium levels across thefood supply. New York City last year rolled out a similar campaign to reduce sugar.
Sodium reduction is one of the rare Obama policies that the Trump administration isn’t trying to roll back —a stance that’s pleasantly surprised health advocates.
The president himself hasn’t been known to encourage consumers to reduce their salt intake. During the partial government shutdown earlier this year, Trump made headlines for serving a sodium-laden fast food spread when Clemson University’s national championship football team visited the White House, prompting snarky headlines about the president having “turned the White House into a White Castle.”
The Agriculture Department took steps to relax some of the Obama-era nutritionstandards for the school meals program, including future sodium limits. But the Trump White House has also allowed FDA to advance a number of major Obama administration nutrition priorities, including mandatory calorie labeling on restaurant menus and new Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods.
As various industry groups seek an audience at OMB in an effort to slow the salt guidance, the deep division among food companies on the issue makes it more difficult to convince the administration to rethink its approach. But the disagreement among industry power players is good news for public health groups.
The government recommends that people limit their salt intake to no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. Americans are currently consuming an average of 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day, the majority of which comes from processed foods.
“We know that the level of salt in food today is putting people at risk of disease,” said Laura MacCleery, policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has long lobbied for sodium reduction at the federal level.
MacCleery criticized the trade associations that are trying to lobby the administration to slow down, calling it an attempt to exert “backroom” influence.
“It’s unfortunate that there’s a last-ditch attempt to throw sand in the gears,” she said, adding: “This game is over.”