By SARA KUGLER
Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK - New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg - who is known to shake salt on his pizza - is focusing on sodium as the next unhealthy enemy in his crusade to coax people into eating better.
Bloomberg's health department has already banned trans fats in restaurant meals and forced chain eateries to post calorie counts on menus. On Monday, the city set guidelines recommending maximum amounts of salt for a variety of restaurant and store-bought foods, with the goal of cutting salt levels in food by a quarter overall in five years.
"I use a lot of salt," Bloomberg admitted Monday. Despite any personal eating habits he may have, the mayor is fixated on nutrition as a public health concern.
"We're trying to extend the lives and improve the lives of people who live in this city," he said.
Unlike the city's trans fat ban and calorie count rule, the salt initiative is voluntary.
The recommendations posted on the city health department's Web site call for substantial reductions in the salt content of many products, from a 20 percent drop in peanut butter to a 40 percent decline in canned vegetables.
The targets include a 40 percent reduction in breakfast cereals and flavored snack chips, and a 25 percent reduction for cold cuts, processed cheese and salsa.
Not even the mayor's favorite foods - popcorn and hot dogs - were spared: The city wants food manufacturers to work on reducing salt by 30 percent in popcorn and 20 percent in wieners.
Health officials say Americans now eat about twice the amount of salt they should. Too much sodium contributes to high blood pressure, which can cause heart attack and stroke.
New York City's program is modeled in part after a similar initiative in Britain that has been under way since 2003.
Seventeen national health organizations and 25 other city or state health agencies have endorsed New York City's effort, called the National Salt Reduction Initiative.
Food industry representatives reacted cautiously to the program Monday.
"It's something I'm sure our members will be taking under consideration," said Nevin Montgomery, president and chief executive of the National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association.
The guidelines suggest that manufacturers lower salt content gradually over several years so consumers won't notice, and they aren't asking for big changes in every category.
For example, under the city's standards, by 2014 no restaurant hamburger should contain more than 1,200 milligrams of salt. Nearly every burger sold by McDonald's already meets that guideline, although there are exceptions like the double quarter pounder with cheese, which has 1,380 milligrams of salt.
ConAgra Foods Inc., which makes products including Chef Boyardee canned pasta meals, Healthy Choice frozen dinners and Swiss Miss hot chocolate, has pledged a 20 percent reduction of salt in its consumer food products by 2015, in part because of consumer demand. The company, based in Omaha, Neb., said its initiative would eliminate about 10 million pounds of salt per year from the American diet.
Even though there will be no penalties for companies that ignore the guidelines, health officials say they think some manufacturers may be motivated to make changes.
"They all fully recognize that sodium is a major health problem that they need to address," said the city's health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley.
Associated Press writer Marcus Franklin contributed to this report.