Salt: tougher targets are on the way

The first salt reduction targets set for the out of home sector were “generous”, according to Public Health England. Should businesses prepare for lower limits and even regulation?

Work on the salt content of food began in 2004. Since then voluntary reduction targets have been set four times, in 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2014. The out of home (OOH) sector was only included in the last ones – there were 24 targets in all and the results were published in December 2018.

In five out of 11 categories (breaded/battered chicken, pizza, children’s main meals, beef/chicken/roast main meals and sandwiches) at least 75% of products had salt levels below the maximum per serving target. Of the burgers-in-a-bun and pasta meals, 50% and 48% respectively had salt levels above maximum targets. Overall, 71% of products had salt levels at or below their maximum per serving target. Not bad.

However, compare that with the performance of “in-home” businesses – retailers and manufacturers – and there is clearly more work to be done. Further PHE analysis of products in 20 “comparable” sub-categories showed that 75% of all out of home products were at or below maximum targets, whilst in-home managed 84%.

This isn’t surprising: OOH has only been involved in one set of targets, whilst retailers and manufacturers have been working with the government and its advisors at PHE for well over a decade on this. Still, businesses expecting an easy ride would be mistaken: 2014 was the first set of targets and in recognition of that they were “generous”, PHE’s Jo Nicholas tells Footprint.

The finding that salt levels in OOH products are higher than those sold in supermarkets, coupled with the fact that more and more people are eating more and more food out of home, means that foodservice is in the spotlight. “It’s up to businesses to look at where they can make changes,” says Nicholas. “We know it’s feasible.”

Before Easter, the government is due to publish its next steps for the salt reduction programme, including new targets for the OOH sector. In recent weeks, campaigners have urged ministers to adopt mandatory targets; the stagnation of progress in recent years and a lack of engagement from industry – especially within OOH – is reason to act, they say.

The Department of Health has long threatened regulation if industry doesn’t match its ambitions in relation to increasing the availability of healthy foods (and reducing levels of salt, sugar and calories). However, to date it has shown little sign of following through with this threat. Nicholas says that it’s up to government to set policy. She seems fairly happy with the engagement levels amongst foodservice businesses, too. “We think engagement is increasing,” she explains, but “some people need to do a bit more”.

One concern is the large chunk of the sector that is still flying well under the radar – the small independent takeaway outlets, in particular, is a segment that is hard (and costly) to reach but has been buoyed by the rapid expansion of services like Deliveroo and Just Eat. Nicholas admits that resources are “restricted”, adding: “We want to go as far and as wide as we can [but] our focus has to be on the main providers as that’s who we are trying to influence”.

Is the programme working? It could be a bit too early to say. However, Action on Salt recently published research showing a “complete lack of commitment” amongst some of the UK’s biggest casual dining chains. “These food companies have known for years that they need to reduce salt, yet they are neglecting to do their civic duty and are putting our children’s health at risk,” said Action on Salt’s Katharine Jenner.

 The campaigners found that 41% of 351 meals assessed had more than the 1.8g per portion limit set by PHE. Some meals had more salt than four years ago. However, separate analysis of the results – by Footprint and due to be published on March 22nd – suggested that the companies who have engaged with the government’s reduction programme are performing better. The battle for and against regulation remains very much in the balance.

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