Take voluntary deals with a pinch of salt

Did someone say it was job done on salt reduction? “The UK is among the world leaders in reducing salt. More than 70% of the retail market and 65% of big high-street restaurants and contract caterers have committed to cutting levels, and we have seen average daily salt intake cut by 15% over the last decade.”

That was Jane Ellison, parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Department of Health, writing in the November 2014 issue of Footprint.

The commitments she was referring to can be found in the responsibility deal (RD) on public health. That’s been shelved, though – and industry has been left wondering what happens next.

In the meantime, it seems that some are making hay while the spotlight shines elsewhere (namely on sugar).

New research carried out by campaign group Cash (Consensus Action on Salt and Health) shows that quite a few shopping basket essentials contain more salt than they used to.

In fact, manufacturers appear to have been adding more and more salt since the reduction programme was taken away from the Food Standards Agency (in 2010) and, a couple of years later, included within the RD.

For instance, between 2007 and 2010 the salt content of tinned tomato soups fell by 27%. But 55% of the soups tested actually contain the same or more salt than they did in 2010.

It’s a similar story for cornflakes, with major reductions between 2004 and 2012, but very little action or improvement since.

Cash also published separate research detailing the high levels of salt in the sandwiches served at major coffee shop chains.

In an analysis for the Daily Telegraph, Cash examined the nutritional information printed on the labels of products sold by the three major chains. These were then compared with the daily intake of salt recommended by the Department for Health (6g per day).

Costa's mozzarella, tomato sourdough panini has 2.7g of salt, nearly half the maximum daily amount, while Caffe Nero's brie and bacon panini has 3.2g of salt – more than half the recommended daily limit, the report noted. One Starbucks panini contained 3.1g of salt, which is more than half the maximum daily recommended amount for adults.

What’s more, many of the products contained more salt than similar products on offer in the high street supermarkets and burger chains.

Some of this performance slide may be down to companies meeting the limits of innovation, but there is more than enough in Cash’s research to raise concerns that the industry-led approach might not have been working – even on salt.

The chains were at pains to highlight their progress, and it would be remiss to suggest that efforts are being made to cut salt content. But is it enough?

Costa, for example, said 80% of its products met the government’s 2012 salt targets. Why not 100% - these targets (set out by the FSA and pre-RD) are 3 years old after all?

Was this failure to make continued progress the reason the RD was wrapped up? As yet, that’s not clear: the government has said very little on the matter. Its focus is on the obesity strategy, which was this week delayed once again.

The government suggested it was proving rather more complicated than it had expected. A lot of working is going on to get it right, a spokesman said. This latest evidence on salt suggests that the best way to get it wrong is to let industry police itself again.

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