The Institute of Medicine has released its report on salt in the American diet and, as expected, it recommends that the FDA mandate reduced sodium content in packaged foods and chain restaurants. Here’s a short summary from The Washington Post of how this would work:
In a complicated undertaking, the FDA would analyze the salt in spaghetti sauces, breads and thousands of other products that make up the $600 billion food and beverage market, sources said. Working with food manufacturers, the government would set limits for salt in these categories, designed to gradually ratchet down sodium consumption. The changes would be calibrated so that consumers barely notice the modification.
As Jeff Ely notes, the idea is that this is a coordination problem. We might all be better off if we reduced our salt intake, but in order to calibrate our tastes to a lower level we have to gradually reduce the salt in all foods at the same time. (For what it’s worth, the FDA has stated it’s not currently planning salt regulations.)
There’s some disagreement about the benefits of reducing salt consumption across the entire population and about whether our “bliss point” for salt content is really that malleable; John Tierney writes on this topic here and here. But for now let’s grant the plausibility of both of those claims. It’s one thing to say we should all reduce our salt consumption. It’s quite another to say that a government agency is capable of gradually and imperceptibly reducing the amount of sodium in the nation’s food supply over the course of a decade and stopping at the “correct” level. The IOM report’s introduction hints at the scale of this endeavor:
… if strategies to reduce sodium intake in the United States are to be successful, they must embrace an approach that emphasizes the entire food system and emphasizes sodium intake as a national concern. This report recommends the use of regulatory tools in an innovative and unprecedented fashion to gradually reduce a widespread ingredient in foods through a well-researched, coordinated, deliberative, and monitored process. […] the approach must be supported by a strong federal government commitment to sodium reduction and leadership from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in cooperation with other agencies and groups to ensure coordination with all stakeholders including the food industry and consumers.
Monitoring! Deliberation! Coordination! This is bureaucracy porn for technocrats. It’s a safe bet that the people at the IOM aren’t reading Hayek on their lunch breaks, because if you have read Hayek the success of this enterprise starts to sound very far-fetched. You begin to wonder how the people making these decisions could possibly have all the information they need to pull this off. How gradual is gradual? What percentage of salt should be taken out of each product each year? Is it the same for bread, pretzels, spaghetti sauce, pickles?
This knowledge problem is exacerbated by the fact that salt’s impact on taste is complex. It doesn’t just make things taste salty. It can make food seem like it has greater body and reduces the perception of bitter elements (recall the way a tiny bit of salt can reduce the bitterness of bad coffee). As food companies compensate for reduced salt in their foods, they may have to make them richer in other ways or use more sweeteners. Similarly, as Tierney points out, if anti-salt advocates are wrong and consumers do have an inflexible satiation point for salt, they may eat more food just to keep their salt intake constant. To some extent we may end up trading salt for calories, hardly an unequivocal good given our current excess.
It’s doubtful whether a government agency could accurately gauge consumer preferences. The FDA is not in the food-selling business and so has little incentive to care about taste. The IOM report repeatedly stresses keeping food “acceptable” to consumers. But what if you don’t want acceptable, you want delicious? Don’t expect the FDA to care. As demonstrated by its actions against unpasteurized dairy and its threat to ban menthol cigarettes, the agency places little value on consumers’ choices when they conflict with regulators’ own assessments of acceptable risk. There’s no reason to believe the interests of regulators and consumers will be aligned on salt levels either.