A few years ago I would have been all in favor of this. The evidence is pretty clear that processed foods are thoroughly over-salted and there are clear medical repercussions from an over-salted diet. Nutrition labeling does not seem to influence people’s buying or eating habits, and the resulting health issues are not just a personal issue since we all pay for medical care one way or another (even more so, now).
All this is still true, but I no longer think this kind of regulation is worth it. We have a bad habit in this country of focusing in single issues, and not drawing back to look at the larger context. If salt is so dangerous it requires a deeply intrusive set of regulations to protect people from it, why are driving and skydiving still so free-choice? Why is tobacco still legal? Why don’t we have bar codes on our driver’s licenses keeping us from buying more than a few drinks at a time? The question is not whether salt is the problem; the question is whether an effective solution is worth the costs.
Regulation like this will certainly create jobs; the FDA will have to hire lots of new people to analyze and track every single processed food product for compliance. If they don’t, the law will have little meaning since lots of products will sneak through with misleading labelling (though I suspect this is exactly what will happen). The food companies will probably hire new people to oversee their sodium reduction efforts and marketing. Of course, all those jobs will be paid for by the consumer, either on the sticker price or through their taxes. So we’ll end up with two sets of meaningless jobs funded or forced by taxpayer dollars, to force companies to do something the market isn’t demanding, all to protect us from choices people are going to make anyway.
And, of course, the root problem here isn’t sodium at all. It’s the prevalence of processed “food-like substances” in general, which require salt to taste good because otherwise they’re made of low-quality inputs. If this kind of food weren’t so cheap in the first place, people wouldn’t buy so much of it, because whole foods would be more competitive. And why are these foods so much cheaper and economically attractive? Commodity subsidies. Corn, soy, and salt go hand in hand within the cheap processed food world.
Fewer people will buy salty processed foods if they cost more than whole foods, thus lowering their sodium intake to healthier levels. The most effective way to achieve that, at a whole-system level, is to reform agriculture subsidies such that corn and soy become pricey additives, not subsidized substitutes. Of course, that’s completely off the table in either party. If anything, a generic Democrat reading this would decide to institute a new “salt tax” instead, which would also raise the price but have the side effect of punishing citizens doubly for an already backwards and wasteful food system their taxes are already funding on the production end.
Why does all this matter so much to us, on our direct-market farm with almost no connection to the processed-food world? Because it is exactly this kind of well-meaning but intrusive regulation that threatens our business as well. We see the same patterns in the current efforts at food safety legislation; efforts to regulate and define every aspect of food production in ways that make no sense in the larger system, and simply increase costs across the board while offering no actual real benefit for the toll. I’m rooting against the salt regulations, not because I don’t believe the scientific and medical evidence, but because I’ve become convinced we can’t regulate our way out of problems created by government policies in the first place. Fix the source, not the symptom.