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Should Government Regulate Our Salt Intake?

Updated on November 29, 2011

Today marks the end of the “public comment” period as prescribed by the Food and Drug Administration in its policy formulation regarding salt intake. What, you missed it? It was all over the Federal Register, which is easily obtainable at newsstands, left on the seats of commuter trains, and the first periodical found in every dentist’s waiting room. But what of it? FDA is far more knowledgeable than the thousands upon thousands of sodium junkies that might object to its restrictions.

Actually, the FDA shot rumors of its salt intake management program down in the spring of 2010. Responding to an article in the Washington Post, predicting an aggressive imposition of salt limits in processed foods, FDA let it be known that the agency was not into such nanny-ing:

A story in today’s Washington Post leaves a mistaken impression that the FDA has begun the process of regulating the amount of sodium in foods. The FDA is not currently working on regulations nor has it made a decision to regulate sodium content in foods at this time.

Yes, we have a gun. And it’s loaded. And it’s in the holster for easy access. But don’t you fret. We will hold our fire at this time. It reminds me of the Environmental Protection Agency’s assurance to farmers that government will not regulate the dust from their soil. You can still hear “for the time being” sotto voce. In fact, FDA made clear what is coming down the pike:

Success in reducing sodium intake will require coordinated national action, with participation of all.

“All” refers to we Americans who just missed out on the well-publicized comment period. “Coordinated national action” refers to federal regulations. We can pretty well assume whom FDA will cast as coordinator.

There are legitimate scientific debates about the pros and cons of salt – how much is too much and can that amount vary by individual. FDA, it seems, is taking its cues from the Institute of Medicine, the health science affiliate of the National Academy of Sciences. IOM’s report does not find the current salt consumption levels to be savory, indeed it considers the present intake amounts a menace to public health. If contrary scientific findings were presented during the comment period – such as those presented in the Journal of the American Medical Association in May or demonstrated in the American Journal of Hypertension in July – we can only hope they were received by FDA with open minds.

Still, even if an ironclad consensus on salt existed, FDA need not consider increased regulation of food companies as its first recourse. In the past, enterprises like Campbell’s Soups and Heinz suffered steep declines when they reduced sodium content, and this done voluntarily. Moreover, as Cato Institute scholar Walter Olson has observed, salt’s ancient role as a preservative may be compromised if levels are diminished too much by zealous imposers of all things healthy.

Beyond all that, how much will such a regulatory apparatus cost post-super committee America? At this festive season of feasting, maybe Scrooge is the partier’s best friend when it comes to taste and enjoyment. Liberals will always point to how much such rules will save in medical treatments and mortality expenses. Maybe or maybe not. But if this is so, then why stop at salt? Sugar is no friend to robust health, nor are the many additives used to preserve and enhance taste that are in soups, condiments and a host of other prepared foods. Let the government feed us our assigned ration of veggies, nuts and herbs each day – all unseasoned – and then take the bows for…whatever.

FDA might prove sensible and hold off on salt laws. Yet that is not the historic pattern. Saving us from ourselves has been its guiding principle since inception. Loath to cede back to us any personal sovereignty – such as personal responsibility for health care – government is more comfortable running every form of interference possible so sickness will not draw near to us.

Watch for the new salt laws after the 2012 election.


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