PhotoTen years is a long time to fight over something as simple as salt. But the Center for Science in the Public Interest says it doesn’t have much choice. It is suing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, saying that for 10 years it has ignored a petition asking it to treat salt as a food additive.

“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,” said CSPI President Michael F. Jacobson in a prepared statement. “The government’s inaction condemns hundreds of thousands of Americans to early deaths due to preventable strokes and heart attacks.”

The average American consumes about 3,650 milligrams of sodium per day, far in excess of the 2,300 milligram limit recommended by federal dietary guidelines, or the 1,500 milligram limit recommended for certain subgroups, including children, people over 50, African Americans, and people with hypertension, kidney disease, or diabetes.

Should be a food additive

CSPI’s 2005 petition asked the FDA to revoke salt’s status as a “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, substance, and to treat it as a food additive under the law. The petition specifically urged the agency to require food manufacturers to gradually reduce the amount of sodium in different categories of processed food, and to require health messages on retail packages of table salt one-half ounce or larger.

“Food companies are putting far too much sodium in processed food in the factory, and we are all paying for it with unnecessarily high rates of hypertension, heart disease, and stroke,” said former New York City Health Commissioner Tom Farley, now CEO of The Public Good Projects. “It’s high time for the FDA to protect Americans from this risk.”

“I hope that CSPI’s lawsuit succeeds in spurring long overdue action that will save thousands of lives a year by reducing sodium in our food supply,” said Frank Sacks, professor of cardiovascular disease prevention at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.

37 years

CSPI has been calling on the FDA to order food manufacturers to reduce salt since 1978. Throughout all of those years, and specifically between 2005 and 2015, Americans’ sodium intake has continued to climb — a sign that the voluntary approach urged by the FDA and the food industry has failed, CSPI says.

In 2007, the FDA published a Federal Register notice, convened a public hearing, and opened a comment period on CSPI’s petition. Since that time, the agency has failed to act, according to CSPI.

Though some food products have posted modest reductions in sodium over the past 10 years, other products have been reformulated to have even more of it. Schmidt’s Potato Rolls, for instance, have 47 percent more sodium in 2015 than they did in 2005. Whole Foods’ 365-brand 4-Cheese Pizza contains 30 percent more sodium than it did in 2005, CSPI said.

While companies such as Walmart, Unilever, and Cargill have made sodium reduction a priority and achieved significant gains, the lack of FDA action means population-wide reductions necessary to reduce sodium-related diseases have not been achieved, CSPI argues.

In April 2010 the Institute of Medicine issued a major report outlining strategies to reduce sodium intake. It strongly endorsed the idea of mandatory reductions in packaged and restaurant foods phased in over time.

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