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USDA Implements Next Phase of Sodium Reduction in School Meals

Jan 12, 2017

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service last week announced a “period of flexibility” for school nutrition officials who are required to implement gradual reductions in sodium levels averaged over all meals offered during the school week. In a memo to state agency directors for school nutrition, USDA said it will implement its “target two” sodium reductions effective July 1, 2017, but it will not enforce penalties during the 2017-18 school year as long as school food authorities show that they are working toward compliance.

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 required USDA to update school nutrition standards, including a reduction in the sodium content of school meals phased over a 10-year period. The first reduction, target one, took effect in 2014. The upcoming reduction, target two, is the halfway point in the multi-year plan.

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IDFA supported congressional measures that required more nutritional evidence from USDA to enact the reductions and opposes the reduction of sodium below target one levels for school meals because of the critical role that adequate sodium levels play in ensuring quality and safety in cheeses.

Appropriations Bills

In the memo, USDA acknowledged that some companies and schools delayed their implementation plans because they didn’t think the department had the funds to implement target two requirements.

Congress included provisions in appropriations bills in 2012, 2015 and 2016 that denied funding to USDA for implementing the reduction requirements until additional scientific research had been conducted to justify the lower levels. However, USDA opted to move forward, citing the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans as sufficient scientific research and evidence to support the proposed sodium reductions and satisfy the appropriations directive.

IDFA supported the congressional directives and will continue to work on this issue with the 115th Congress.

Cheese Challenges

Another reason USDA delayed the enforcement penalty was that food companies and school officials had expressed concern about the implementation timetable and anticipated operational challenges in meeting the lower sodium levels.

“School food manufacturers require significant lead time to conduct product development that results in acceptable products with lower sodium and product availability,” USDA said in the memo.

This process is even more difficult for cheese companies. Although some lower-sodium cheeses have been developed for food service, ingredients with salt and sodium are critical for the flavor, quality, meltability and safety of cheese used in school meals. Since it may not be technically possible to reduce the sodium content of cheese in some entrees, the lower weekly meal targets will require the amount of cheese to be reduced or eliminated from some dishes.

Read the memo here.

Members with questions may contact Cary Frye, vice president of regulatory and scientific affairs, at cfrye@idfa.org.