FDA Proposes ‘Voluntary’ Salt Restrictions for Food Production

Published November 16, 2016

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a federal agency whose mission statement includes “ensuring the safety of our nation’s food supply,” is accepting comments on proposed official guidelines intended to encourage restaurants and food manufacturing companies to reduce the amount of salt used in food preparation.

The guidelines, for which the extended public comment period ends in December 2016, include a timetable for voluntary sodium reduction targets. The proposed guidelines are intended to encourage companies to help reduce consumers’ total salt consumption from an estimated 3,400 milligrams per day to 2,200 milligrams a day.

Preliminary to Full Regulation?

Sherzod Abdukadirov, a research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, says the guidelines are not legally binding but may be the first step towards enforced government restrictions.

“There are essentially three areas of concern,” Abdukadirov said. “One is the issue of transparency, and it has to do with this notion of passing regulations through guidelines. The idea is that guidance is a tool that is technically voluntary—it’s not something the industry has to follow—and yet, in reality, you would often find that the industry sees it as a precursor for a regulation that will surely follow later on.”

Changing the Recipe

Abdukadirov says too many government bureaucrats in the kitchen may ruin the meal.

“Along with unintended consequences, we see that, especially in the food space where any attempt to reduce one of the major components like fat, sugar, salt, … you often find that if you are going to reduce the sodium content, you have to replace it with something to make the product taste the same so that consumers will still buy it,” Abdukadirov said.

Setting the Stage

Jeff Stier, a senior fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research, says the point of voluntary government guidelines is laying a foundation for future government restrictions.

“It’s only a voluntary guideline, and the whole purpose of voluntary guidelines is to pressure industry, under the threat that if they don’t comply with the voluntary guideline, they will then become mandatory,” Stier said. “If you think about it, there’s really no purpose of issuing a voluntary guideline unless it is your intent to threaten they become mandatory if you don’t comply. Think about it; it’s already voluntary.”

‘Much-Diminished Threat’

Stier says the 2016 election of Donald Trump reduces but does not eliminate the threat of government regulations, such as those proposed by FDA.

“I see a much-diminished threat that the Trump administration would turn that next corner and make it mandatory, say in two years from now,” Stier said. “Obviously, it depends on who the president nominates to head up the FDA—there’s still a lot of question marks.”