Sunday, May 30, 2010

Michelle Obama & The Food Industry Salt Assault

White House efforts to change childrens' palates could eventually eliminate food industry arguments that consumers demand high levels of salt...
In March, when speaking to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, First Lady Michelle Obama called on major food companies to voluntarily--but aggressively--reduce the level of salt in processed and packaged foods, without waiting for the federal government to intervene with regulations. In an excellent piece in the New York Times, reporter Michael Moss takes a hard look at what's really going on with salt, potential federal regulations, and the food industry. He notes that many food corporations are blaming consumers for a continued use of high amounts of salt--and some of these companies are the same ones that have pledged to join Mrs. Obama's Let's Move! campaign to eliminate childhood obesity.

Food corporations are "...pointing to, as Kellogg put it in a letter to a federal nutrition advisory committee, “the virtually intractable nature of the appetite for salt,” Moss writes.

Kellogg signed on to join Let's Move! in mid-May, as part of a consortium of 16 companies pledging to dump "trillions" of calories out of the food chain beginning in 2012. Salt levels were not part of this particular "healthy commitment"--yet. These could well be included as the initiative develops; the companies that signed on will be reporting in to Mrs. Obama's team about voluntary changes in ingredients within the next six months, according to their pledge. In April, the federal Institute of Medicine went further than Mrs. Obama's voluntary call for salty change; it released a report urging new, lower government standards for salt allowed in foods. Food companies, for all kinds of reasons--primarily economic--want to avoid regulation.

Willing to dump calories, but far less willing to dump salt
In addition to blaming consumer demand for high salt levels, Moss points out that some food corporations have also engaged in a "delay and divert" strategy, to obfuscate the issue of salt and health, and to make it seem as if salt is not a problem. Moss notes the internal salt struggles going on not only with Kellogg, but also Campbell Soups, and PepsiCo (owners of Frito Lay), both of which also announced their commitment to join the Let's Move! calorie dump.

For instance, Moss gets a Campbell Soup representative on the record with the statement that the company's famous chicken noodle soup, which in each single can has more than the recommended daily dosage of salt, would not be purchased by eaters if the recipe is changed. Cheez-Its, a Frito Lay product, tastes 'medicinal' without salt, Moss notes. The Let's Move! calorie dump project, BTW, is the first-ever monitored public-private commitment of its kind, and has been both lauded and disparaged by critics. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, working with Partnership For A Healthier America, the non-profit that was set up to continue the work of Let's Move!, will annually track how effective the food companies' project of trimming calories is, in terms of impact on child health. But does a calorie dump do anything if the "remaining calories" are over-loaded with salt? That's an easy answer, from a public health stand point.

The White House takes salt off the plate...
Still, the very savvy White House approach of making huge attempts to literally change the palates of America's children, by relentlessly encouraging youthful consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables--and ensuring that more of these get into school meals programs, and that school meals are as healthy as possible--could ultimately dismantle the food industry argument that consumers demand salt. If there's an entire new generation that prefers foods that are not massively salted, there will no longer be a consumer market for this. That's a years-long project, however. (Above: Obama Biden salt shakers. Of course these exist...)

Among other White House maneuvers to change what's on America's plates, the new Action Plan from the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity recommends a huge boost in kids' consumption of fruit and vegetables. And the just-launched Chefs Move to Schools project, which debuts this Friday, is another weapon in the palate-changing arsenal. An all-volunteer army of chefs will be adopting their local schools, across the US, to help with nutrition education and to rapidly make changes in school meals. But this will also have a happy outcome of encouraging the participating chefs to change the offerings on their own menus, back home in their own restaurants. Dishes with more fruits, more veggies, and less sugar, fat, and salt could well become the standard across America....

Meantime, while all this gets rolling, the negative effects of salt continue to cause all kinds of major health problems. And there are building efforts, in some parts of the Obama admin, to better regulate salt levels. The FDA, the CDC, and HHS all are very interested in the subject.

Iron Chef America host Alton Brown, who visited the White House last October to film the special White House episode of the show, takes a star turn in Moss' story, too. Brown is the pitchman for Cargill's pro-salt campaign.

*Moss just won a 2010 Pulitzer Prize for his excellent reporting on meat safety, which caused USDA to re-think some of its meat policies.