By MARSHA MERCER
As the federal government gears up for a battle over salt, it’s worth reviewing what happened the last time the government tried to cut off salt supplies.
In the 19th Century, salt wasn’t just for seasoning but also for preserving foods and tanning leather. Salt production for the South centered in the town of Saltville in Southwest Virginia. Saltville became a primary target of Union forces during the Civil War.
After a bloody clash in October 1864, Union troops led by Gen. George Stoneman besieged sparsely defended Saltville again two months later. Author William Marvel described “the orgy of destruction” at the salt works in his 1992 book, “Southwest Virginia in the Civil War: The Battles for Saltville”:
“Sledge hammers rang against salt kettles and masonry kilns; military shells and railroad iron rattled down the wooden well casings; soldiers broadcast sacks of salt like Romans at Carthage; everywhere sheds, stables, and offices crumbled in flames.”
You’d think all that would have ended salt for the South. Not so.
Within weeks, Saltville was again supplying the Confederacy, and the military faced no salt shortages in the remaining months of the war, according to geologist and author Robert C. Whisonant of Radford University.
That the Confederacy managed to keep Southerners in salt all the way to Appomattox is a cautionary tale for the Obama administration as it tries to engineer a national cut in salt consumption. Even the most forceful federal attack can fail to stop the flow of salt.
In the 21st Century, we Americans live in our own private Saltvilles, where our appetite for salty foods is stronger than ever.
We’ve had 40 years of health reports urging Americans to consume less. And yet, the American Medical Association reports that salt consumption has risen 50 percent, and blood pressure by nearly the same amount, since the 1970s.
Seventy-five percent of the salt Americans eat comes from processed foods, according to a new Institute of Medicine report. The costs are huge.
One in three adults – nearly 75 million Americans age 20 and older -- have hypertension or high blood pressure, and another 50 million suffer from pre-hypertension. We’re setting ourselves up for heart attacks, strokes and other conditions.
The institute, after a year-long study, called for federal regulations to reduce the sodium content of foods.
The Salt Institute fired back that the call for mandatory sodium reductions was “reckless and flawed.” Other food industry groups protested that they already offer lower-sodium products.
The Food and Drug Administration tried to quell the uproar with a statement saying it “is not currently working on regulations nor has it made a decision to regulate sodium content in foods at this time.”
This is shaping up to be one of Washington’s false-choice debates. To reduce sodium, the choice need not be personal discipline or government regulation. Restaurants, food processors and food service companies can and should voluntarily provide healthier choices. Some, to their credit, are doing so, but we need more.
The potential benefits of a reduction in sodium are impressive. The United Kingdom began working with food manufacturers to cut sodium in 2003, and they’ve reduced sodium content in many foods, resulting in a 9.5 percent decrease in sodium intake.
Such collaboration in the United States, with a similar 9.5 percent decrease, could avert 518,885 strokes and 480,353 heart attacks over the lifetime of adults 40 to 85 years old, and that could save $32.1 billion in medical costs, the Institute of Medicine report said.
Its computer modeling also examined a salt tax, which is not used by any other countries. If a tax cut Americans’ salt intake by 6 percent, it would save $22.4 billion in medical costs, the report said.
Like most changes, cutting back on salt starts with the individual, but information and participation by good citizens in the food industry can help.
The New York City Health Department is coordinating a National Salt Reduction Initiative with the goal of a 20 percent reduction in salt intake in restaurant and packaged foods over five years. The coalition of cities, states and health groups works with food manufacturers and restaurants to voluntarily reduce the amount of sodium.
That’s a great first step, and the president and Michelle Obama should throw their support there. If the voluntary initiative fails, there will be time for Uncle Sam to send in the sledge hammers, military shells and soldiers. But we know how well that worked last time.
(c) 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.