The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, in an effort to reduce the amount of sodium used in restaurant and prepared foods, has debuted its long-awaited National Salt Reduction Initiative.
The goal of the program, which is voluntary and not mandated like menu labeling, is to cut the levels of sodium in restaurant and prepackaged foods by 20 percent over the next five years. The initiative, which is expected to cull participation from chain and independent restaurants alike, has been in the works for the past year and is a partnership between New York City’s Board of Health, 17 national health organizations and 26 cities, including Los Angeles and Seattle.
Sodium levels have been a hot topic among consumers, nutritionists and government agencies of late, and some observers have said sodium reduction in foodservice is the next step for the industry, like the removal of trans fats was years ago.
Already, Denny’s has been sued over its sodium levels, although that lawsuit was dismissed. Baltimore has debuted a sodium awareness program in cooperation with the Restaurant Association of Maryland. And some chains, including Denny’s, Burger King and those operated by Yum! Brands Inc., have reworked or plan to rework some menu items to include lower levels of sodium.
New York City’s board of health began working on its salt-reduction initiative last year under then commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden, who has since moved on to lead the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The plan was developed in an attempt to lower salt intake and therefore reduce incidents of high blood pressure, which can increase the risk for heart attack and stroke.
According to the health department, reformulating menu items to reflect a reduction in sodium will involve some additional cost, “but like other recipe changes or new product launches, it can be managed within businesses’ reformulation and relabeling cycles.”
Rick Sampson, president of the New York State Restaurant Association, however, is concerned about the pressure this could place on restaurants.
“You’re talking about some major, major changing and reformulating,” he said. “How do you do this? How do you reduce the sodium from all of those products? All I know is that this is going to put some major concern and pressure on quick-service restaurants.”
Sampson, who last year attended several of the National Salt Reduction Initiative planning meetings, said he “commends the health department for doing this on a voluntary basis, but again, you’ve got to look at the big picture.
“A McDonald’s or Burger King can’t just reduce the sodium in one locale,” he continued. “So now you’re talking about them doing it for every locale. There’s just so much involved to get it up and running so quickly.”
He also voiced concern that if the program does not get enough voluntary participants, the health department could end up mandating a reduction in sodium.
“We’re hoping they will do this on a voluntary basis, but will they come back and mandate it?” he asked. “If they do that, I don’t know what it will mean.”
The NYC health department’s Dr. Sonya Angell said the program would remain voluntary and that there are no plans to mandate salt reduction.
“We are very optimistic about this,” she said. “We had a lot of companies at the table and we think the targets are reasonable and feasible.”
Currently, the program is working off of information culled from several national data banks and will continue researching salt reduction targets and would release them in the spring.
The program, similar to one already practiced in the United Kingdom, measures sodium content per 100 grams of food. So, for example, a hamburger should contain no more than 1,500 grams of sodium, according to the 2012 targets and 1,200 grams of sodium by 2014. The recommended sodium intake for adults ranges between 1,500 grams and 2,300 grams per day.
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