Consumer group sues FDA for inaction on salt

The Center for Science in the Public Interest wants the FDA to restrict salt in the U.S. food supply.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest wants the FDA to restrict salt in the U.S. food supply.

A prominent consumer advocacy group sued the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Thursday for failing to regulate the amount of salt in the nation’s food supply.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest wants the FDA to act on the group’s 10-year-old petition to lift salt’s status as “generally recognized as safe.” Doing so would reclassify salt as a food additive, which subjects it to more stringent regulation, like limits on the amounts allowed in processed foods.

The legal action is the latest chapter in the group’s decades-long efforts to combat excessive sodium consumption. Eating too much salt can lead to high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease, kidney failure and stroke.

Americans, on average, consume 3,400 milligrams of sodium each day, or about 1.5 teaspoons of salt.

But federal dietary guidelines call for less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day for most people ages 14 to 50 – and no more than 1,500 milligrams a day for African-Americans; people with hypertension, diabetes or chronic kidney disease; and those ages 51 and older.

“For more than 35 years, FDA has dragged its feet and refused to do anything to protect Americans from excess sodium in the food supply,” the group’s president, Michael F. Jacobson, said in a statement. “The government’s inaction condemns hundreds of thousands of Americans to early deaths due to preventable strokes and heart attacks.”

The center first asked the FDA to not recognize salt as safe in 1978. Years of FDA inaction prompted a 1983 lawsuit by the center that was ultimately dismissed. The FDA did, however, agree to consider proposing a change in salt’s status as safe if the food industry didn’t reduce sodium content voluntarily and begin sodium content labeling after a reasonable period of time.

The center sued the FDA again in 2005 for failure to act and refiled its petition to revoke salt’s status as “generally recognized as safe.”

The FDA convened a public hearing on the issue and opened a public comment period on the center’s petition, but the group claims the agency has yet to decide the matter.

The complaint filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia claims the FDA’s delay violates the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires federal agencies to decide petitions in a timely manner. The FDA must file a response to the center’s complaint by Dec. 7.

“The Food and Drug Administration has been promising results on sodium reduction since the Reagan administration and our petition has been pending since the George W. Bush administration,” Jacobson’s statement said. “It is our hope that the court will tell the Obama administration that it is breaking the law and causing needless deaths and medical expenses by stalling on salt.”

FDA spokeswoman Megan McSeveney said in an email statement that the agency is “developing draft voluntary targets for sodium reduction in various foods.” But the FDA’s goal is to encourage the food industry to “gradually lower sodium in the foods that are available to consumers so that they will have more options available to them.”

“The FDA will continue to consider the citizen petition as it develops its sodium reduction strategies,” McSeveney added.

More than 90 percent of U.S. schoolchildren eat more salt than they should, taking in an average of nearly 3,300 milligrams of sodium per day, according to a government report released last year.

But hiding the kitchen salt shaker won’t do much to curb the problem, because most of the sodium in kids’ diets come from foods prepared outside the home. In fact, store-bought processed foods like savory snacks, cold cuts, cheese and soups account for 65 percent of the sodium that children eat.