NEW YORK Health department officials here said Wednesday that they would meet in February with representatives of large chain restaurants as they work to further their efforts in reducing the salt content in prepared and restaurant foods.
The meeting follows one between New York City officials, food manufacturers and restaurant industry members held last October  at which officials made it known that they would seek to reduce sodium levels in prepared and restaurant foods in order to reduce health care costs. Salt is known to contribute to high blood pressure, which can lead to strokes and heart attacks.
According to New York City health department officials, Americans currently consume twice the recommended daily limit of salt. They further contend that almost 80 percent of the salt consumed is added to processed and prepared foods before they are purchased. Lowering sodium levels would not only reduce health care costs, but also prevent approximately 150,000 premature deaths a year, they said.
“High blood pressure causes hundreds of thousands of strokes, heart attacks and early deaths each year in this country,” said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, New York City’s health commissioner. “By cutting the amount of salt in processed and restaurant food, we can reduce health care costs and prevent needless suffering. This initiative will require concerted effort over a number of years, but the goals are within our reach. We look forward to working with the food industry to achieve them.”
Ideally, health officials said they aimed to reduce the amount of salt in prepared and restaurant foods by 25 percent over the next five years and 50 percent over the next decade. The goal of the February meeting will be to discuss the logistics of reducing sodium levels in menu items, they said. A detailed action plan is expected to be rolled out in late August.
The health department’s goal is to reduce each person’s daily intake of sodium from approximately 3,500 milligrams to about 2,300 milligrams, said Dr. Sonia Angell of the health department.
If acceptable progress has not been made during an allotted time frame, city officials indicated they would pursue other courses of action, including legislation.
Over the past several years, Frieden has been instrumental in implementing numerous health-related initiatives that have affected the restaurant industry. Among them are bans on smoking and the use of artificial trans fats in restaurant items. Most recently, New York City restaurants that are part of chains with 15 or more units nationwide began the mandatory posting of calorie counts on menus and menu boards.
Despite past successes, however, the efforts to reduce salt may be more problematic, said Chuck Hunt, a spokesman for the New York State Restaurant Association. The initiative is “well intentioned, but there is a big chance this is going to be a lot more difficult than banning smoking,” he said.
Sheila Weiss, director of nutrition policy for the National Restaurant Association, agreed, noting that salt has many beneficial uses that make it harder to simply remove.
“As restaurateurs, we’re customers, too, and we need to work with suppliers on any reduction that takes place,” she said. “Unlike with trans fats, this is a matter of taste and also of food safety and quality because a lot of times salt is used as a preservative. If you look at trans fats, there are a lot of viable alternatives, but not so with salt. In terms of substitutes for salt, there aren’t many, so it becomes a question of reformulation, but it needs to be done gradually so that consumers will accept the taste of it.”
Weiss noted that the board of health’s campaign to reduce salt has the support of various other health departments and agencies around the country. But, she added, “We feel it would be of greatest benefit if it affects the nation, and not in a checkerboard approach, from city to city and state to state.”
Contact Elissa Elan at [email protected]