Morton Satin

When the World Trade Organization (WTO) was established in 1995, an international agreement on sanitary and phytosanitary measures (SPS) to reduce risks arising from additives, contaminants, toxins, or pathogens in foods took effect. Under the terms of the SPS Agreement, the WTO sets conditions on member-states’ policies related to food safety. Intimately linked to the SPS is an additional agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT), signed in the same year and designed to restrict the use of unjustified measures for the purpose of trade protection.

The aim of the SPS and TBT Agreements is to ensure that regulatory actions are not misused for protectionist purposes and don’t result in unnecessary barriers to international trade. The intent is to reduce arbitrary decisions by requiring all health protection measures to be based upon an objective analysis of the preponderance of scientific evidence.

An early example of this concern was food irradiation, which came under the critical scrutiny of anti-nuclear activists. Food irradiation held the promise of being a powerful technology for reducing foodborne diseases and post-harvest food losses, but many activists stood against it. Similar circumstances arose regarding the use of genetically engineered plant materials and dairy products from hormone-treated cows. Thus, certain technologies and processes were in jeopardy of being rejected because of ideology rather than scientific evidence. It was no surprise that the United States pushed aggressively for SPS and TBT.

Some the most challenging WTO trade disputes are those related to standards for health or safety. Import regulations that fall under the provisions of TBT or SPS Agreements are multiplying around the world. They are typically complex regulations, frequently employing standards that create a high hurdle for imports. Exporters, whose own governments do not implement similar standards, find it difficult to understand the logic or need behind the regulations, so an objective evaluation of the science supporting them goes a long way in resolving disputes.

The core strategy of the recent Institute of Medicine (IOM) Committee report on “Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake in the United States” is the FDA removal of GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status from salt and the regulation of the amount to be added to each food category. Removing the GRAS status of salt and regulating what is an essential nutrient and arguably the oldest and most ubiquitous food additive in the world will be a monumental task and will undoubtedly have enormous consequences for food and food trade around the world.

Several European countries are major exporters of traditional food products to the U.S. Breads, olives, ham, sausages and cheeses—produced through processes standardized centuries ago—are typical examples. These products and processes are so well established that many are protected with geographic origin designations. Not only are products such as Parmesan and Gorgonzola cheeses, olives, anchovies, prosciutto, and pepperoni consumed directly, but they are also key ingredients in many other products such as pizza and pasta dishes.

The traditional methods used to make these products were developed long before refrigeration. Many employ high salt levels for debittering (olives), curing (hard cheeses), mold culturing (blue-veined cheeses), water activity control (black forest and prosciutto hams, corned beef, salamis, etc.), and storage (anchovies, capers, fish roe, salt fish). The intent of the IOM report makes it unlikely that these traditional products will be permitted. While it is impossible to say whether low-salt variations of these products will achieve market success or whether salt replacement additives will themselves come under regulatory analysis for potential health issues, one thing can be predicted with a fair degree of certainty. Regulation of the salt content of foods will be carefully scrutinized regarding its impact as a non-tariff trade barrier.

Although there has not been a formal U.S. review of the impact of salt reduction on health outcomes, the regulation of salt in food products is considered a health measure. The German Ministry of Health recently published a meta-review on salt, concluding that there is no public health benefit to a population-wide reduction in sodium intake.

For exporters of traditional French, Greek, and Italian foods, the health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet have been acknowledged for centuries. Despite Americans’ stable consumption of salt for the past three decades, ischemic heart disease death rates in the U.S. have fallen precipitously. All of the above are rational reasons to invoke the SPS and TBT Agreements to challenge whether the regulation of salt in foods is an arbitrary measure and an unjustified barrier to trade or one supported by the preponderance of scientific evidence.

Let’s hope that science continues to remain the court of last resort.

by Morton Satin, a member of IFT, is Director, Technical & Regulatory Affairs, Salt Institute, Alexandria, Va. ([email protected]).