Packaged and restaurant foods should reduce their salt content by 25 percent over the next five years, says a national campaign led by New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley.

“Consumers can always add salt to food, but they can’t take it out,” Commissioner Farley said in announcing the new voluntary target announced by the National Salt Reduction Initiative.

“At current levels, ” Dr. Farley said, “the salt in our diets poses health risks for people with normal blood pressure, and it’s even riskier for the 1.5 million New Yorkers with high blood pressure.  If we can reduce the sodium levels in packaged and restaurant foods, we will give consumers more choice about the amount of salt they want, and reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke in the process.”

Those involved in the campaign to reduce salt intake believe Americans are consuming “roughly twice the recommended limit of salt each day–causing widespread high blood pressure and placing millions at risk of heart attack and stroke.”

Nearly 80 percent of all salt consumed is added to foods before they are sold.

The National Salt Reduction Initiative, involving cities, states, and health organizations, has developed specific targets for 61 categories of packaged foods and 25 classes of restaurant food.  There are targets for sodium reduction for 2012 and 2014.

A technical comment period on the targets will run until Monday, Feb. 1, 2010.

The American Meat Institute, which has published a fact sheet on the health and safety benefits of salt say it has  “been active in the draft target process, participating in numerous webinars and meetings during the past several months, specifically addressing the proposed meat food category definitions, sodium reduction targets, the need for sodium functionality in meat products and food safety concerns.”

AMI’s fact sheet notes that “salt is one of the oldest, most ubiquitous food ingredients known to man” and calls it an “age-tested” ingredient.  Salt’s role in flavor, cooking, and food safety are all mentioned prominently.

The recommended daily intake for sodium is 1,500 mg for most adults, especially for African-Americans and anyone over 40, and 2,300 mg for others.   That much salt is contained on one serving of some deli meats, according to the National Salt Reduction Initiative.

AMI, however, says only three of the top 20 sodium-contributing foods are meat.  The others are salty snacks, cheeses, milk, white bread, and other non-meat foods.

Many foods, like breads and muffins, have high sodium content, but do not taste salty.

Anti-salt campaigns are underway in other countries around the world.  The United Kingdom has reduced salt content by 40 percent in some food products, according to the National Salt Reduction Initiative.  Other countries with their own anti-salt campaigns include Canada, Australia, Finland, Ireland, and New Zealand.

The anti-salt campaign in the United States is endorsed by the American Heart Association and funded by such well known organizations as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, New York State Health Foundation, the National Association of County & City Health Officials, and the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

“Excess sodium greatly increases the chance of developing hypertension, heart disease and stroke, says AMA President J. James Rohack.   Dr. Rohack says AMA has long sought the reduction of sodium in processed foods, fast foods and restaurant meals.