The IOM Weighs In

At the Atlantic Food Summit in March (report here, videos here), BlackBerries were ablaze with news that the FDA had sent warning letters to almost 20 food manufacturers about possible violations of its policies on front-of-packaging labeling. At her keynote, Dr. Margaret Hamburg, the FDA's commissioner, had mentioned front-of-label packaging as an area of focus. The next month, the Institute of Medicine issued a consensus report calling for reduction in national sodium levels--and the Washington Post reported, incorrectly, that the FDA was about to initiate its own crackdown on industry.

For now health departments are hoping that the food industry will reduce sodium levels in its food voluntarily and in a co-ordinated way, as spearheaded by the New York City Health Department's National Salt Reduction Initiative. But the IOM report lays the groundwork for stronger, mandated standards for acceptable sodium levels in food, and goes so far in its summary as to say that over 40 years, voluntary efforts have "not succeeded." The FDA will keep monitoring the results of the salt-reduction initiative, and we'll wait for reports from Mike Taylor on any sort of action it decides to take.

Maybe voluntary efforts will work! Marc Ambinder just reported on a giant-sized initiative by food-industry giants including ConAgra to reduce the calories in their products by one and a half trillion calories by 2012. Can it happen? He's already skeptical: "So far as I can tell, there is no Calorie Measuring Authority, and the science of counting calories is not as exact as one might think." We know we'll hear from Marion Nestle about it. UPDATE: She did! And even listened in on the White House conference call announcing it.

And now the IOM has come up with another hard-hitting report, recommending that food manufacturers be subjected to the same rigorous scrutiny for health claims they put on, say, cereal boxes that drug makers face for their products. As Nestle reported last week, this is big news: she told a Business Week reporter, "If I were a food marketer, I would be trembling in my shoes."

Dr. John Ball takes a more measured approach, as befits the head of a distinguished panel from the country's most distinguished group of doctors. Dr. Ball headed the committee that wrote the report, and has been kind enough to give us an explanation of why its recommendations are important to the good health of everyone who buys food and tries to make sense of claims on the front of boxes and cans. I'll welcome more from the Institute--and applaud their recent reports.