RALEIGH — If the food police get their way, North Carolinians can kiss their country hams, bacon, and fresh Bright Leaf hot dogs goodbye. These Southern specialties might not disappear altogether, but, if the health agency’s crusade against salt is successful, they never will taste the same again.
The Washington Post reports that the Food and Drug Administration plans an unprecedented effort to reduce gradually Americans’ salt consumption.
In April, the Institute of Medicine advised the FDA to lower the recommended daily intake of sodium for individuals from 2,300 mg to 1,500 mg. It also recommended setting maximum legal limits on salt in all packaged and restaurant foods.
The plan is “to slowly ratchet down the sodium level, so people won’t notice the change,” said Christina DeWitt, a food scientist on the IOM advisory panel.
Still, critics of the proposal argue that, in isolation, limiting salt in the diet may not improve public health. Jacob Sullum, senior editor at Reason magazine, says there’s little evidence linking low-salt diets to a reduced incidence of high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease.
Sullum cites a February 2009 New York Times op-ed column by Michael Alderman, a professor of epidemiology at the Albert Einstein College of medicine, which stated:
“[O]ver the past generation, while sodium intake in the United States appears to be increasing, deaths from heart attacks and strokes have declined by half,” Alderman wrote. “It is also possible that a change in this single dietary element might disturb unknown nutritional interactions and thus generate other as yet unrecognized effects, good or bad.”
Just how much salt the FDA might cut has not yet been determined, but DeWitt said allowances might be made for inherently salty foods like brine cheeses, pickles, olives, and country ham.
“There are products where salt is part of their makeup, it’s part of their character,” DeWitt said. “It was not the intent of the committee to get rid of these products altogether.”
Candace Cansler, director of the National Country Ham Association, said U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations require country hams to have at least 4 percent salt content. Any less and the meat is subject to microbial contamination.
DeWitt said the FDA probably wouldn’t write a rule contradicting the USDA’s 4 percent minimum rule, but it might set a salt content maximum at 6 or 7 percent.
Cansler said the salt content of the average country ham is between 5 percent and 8 percent. She said setting a maximum of 6 percent or 7 percent would not be impossible, but it would impose costs and complications on producers.
“Different hams absorb salt at different rates,” Cansler said. “If the USDA changes the salt charts, they’ll have to change the aging chart as well.”
The longer a country ham ages, the saltier it gets, she explained. It would not be difficult to apply an upper salt limit to hams produced and sold locally, but a ceiling could complicate the production of hams targeted for export or import. And an upper limit would restrict certain producers that use aging as a way to distinguish their hams from their competitors.
Cansler also said that country ham should not be considered a dietary staple. It’s “something you eat in moderation,” she said. “It’s a flavorful treat, like bacon.”
DeWitt agreed: “Nobody’s making a meal out of pickles or olives. They’re consumed as a side, not a main meal. To me country ham falls in that same category.”
But there’s no guarantee that the FDA would categorize country ham as a delicacy. “That’s something FDA will have to decide for itself,” DeWitt said.
It’s also unclear how the FDA would treat bacon, another pork product heavily reliant on salt.
A story on salt regulation in The Philadelphia Inquirer suggested that the “FDA might mandate maximum amounts of sodium per serving in food categories — say, bacon — in 2015, then slightly less in 2018, and finally reaching the goal in 2024.”
That would pose problems for bacon producers. “Bacon’s not bacon unless you use salt to cure it,” Cansler said.
Bright Leaf hot dogs
Without question, hot dogs would be regulated, along with other processed packaged foods. Although no target sodium level has been set, there has been talk of reducing salt content in all packaged foods by 25 percent over the next five years and even more in the next 10.
Johnny Hayes, plant manager at Smithfield-based Carolina Packers, said their signature Bright Leaf hot dogs now have a salt content of 2.5 percent. A 25 percent cut would take that down to 1.9 percent.
“They can’t get much lower than 2 percent or they’re going to deal with a lot more problems than salt,” he said.
Those problems include E. Coli, Salmonella, Staphylococcus, and Listeria.
“I’ve been in this business 22 years,” Hayes said. “I’ve been through the reduced sodium thing with another company. There’s really no preservative like salt when it comes to curing or preserving meat. It’s been used for thousands of years.”
Carolina Packers General Manager Kent Denning said cutting back on salt would reduce the already brief shelf life of the hot dogs, forcing the company to switch to vacuum packaging or make grocery store deliveries more often.
What sets the Bright Leaf brand apart from the competition, Denning says, is that they’re sold in a bag, letting customers know the hot dogs are fresh. Vacuum-packaged hot dogs have an 85- to 90-day shelf life, while Bright Leaf hot dogs are supposed to be consumed within 18 days of the date they are packaged.
Denning has tried to switch to vacuum packs in the past and his customers were furious. He said his company serves a niche market, and that he would lose customers by adopting vacuum packaging.
The alternative would be making deliveries to markets four or five days a week, instead of the one or two deliveries Carolina Packers now makes.
“That’s a cost you’ll have to pass on to the consumer,” Denning said.
In addition to reducing shelf life, cutting back on salt would reduce flavor, Denning said. “I’ve been here 20 years and our recipe has never changed because that’s what our customers want, and we try to give them what they want,” he said.
Paul Stone, president of the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association, expressed similar sentiments about mandatory salt reduction.
“Whether it’s salt or cheese or pepper or parsley, it’s everything in moderation,” Stone said. “The idea that any one ingredient would be moderated doesn’t make any sense. Anything in excess with food, or with a lot of things in life, won’t be good for you.”
Stone said it was “hard to fathom” what would happen to restaurants if the government began enforcing reduced-salt menus.
“The whole idea of eating out is you have somebody there to prepare a good meal for you,” Stone said.
If chefs are not allowed to use the same amount of salt in their time-honored recipes, customers may not enjoy their favorite menu items anymore, and might start eating at home.
“I think it’s really, really approaching a nanny state when they start even thinking about stuff like this,” Stone said.
NCRLA’s website states the association “will oppose any proposed state legislation requiring the removal or reduction of any specific ingredients used to prepare food.”
Reason’s Sullum, author of For Your Own Good: The Anti-Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health, also says low-salt mandates intrude on individual rights and personal responsibility. “[E]ven if it were proven that consuming a certain amount of salt was bad for you,” Sullum said, “the government doesn’t have any business telling you what you may eat and what you may not eat.”
Cansler of the National Country Ham Association agrees: “We can’t decide for ourselves whether we want to eat salt or not — our government has to tell us?”
Sara Burrows is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.