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Action on Salt

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House of Commons reception

On the 31st January a lunchtime reception was held at the House of Commons, between 12.15 and 2pm. There were around 100 guests including representatives from retailers, food manufacturers, caterers, charities, MPs, Department of Health (DH), the Food Standards Agency (FSA), media and other stakeholders.

Presentations 

Mary Creagh, MP for Wakefield, Denby Dale and Kirkburton and sponsor of the event introduced the speakers:

Professor Graham MacGregor, Chairman of CASH

Ms Caroline Flint, Minister of State for Public Health

Dame Deirdre Hutton, Chairman of the Food Standards Agency (FSA)

Ms Jillian Pitt, Senior Policy Officer, National Consumer Council

Mrs Mary Creagh

Before introducing all speakers, Mrs Creagh opened the event by commenting that we all are waking up to dangers and risks associated with excessive salt consumption. Mrs Creagh highlighted that salt is a major factor in high blood pressure and high blood pressure is the main cause of strokes and heart attacks. In addition, Mrs Creagh highlighted that salt has other adverse effects on health such as osteoporosis, asthma, and links with stomach cancer.

Mary highlighted one of the reasons she introduced the Children’s Food Bill to parliament in 2005 was because of products like Mr Greedy Mini Hot Dogs in Gravy produced by Ye Olde Oak which contained over 2.5g salt more than the average recommended daily intake for a 3-5 year old, the target consumer for this type of product. After Mary highlighted this product at the Labour party conference, Mr Greedy disappeared off the tin and the salt was reduced dramatically. Mrs Creagh highlighted many responsible food companies are making genuine and significant reductions in the amount of salt that they are using and paid tribute to CASH for making this happen, but reminded the room that it is also down to people power and the market responding to what the consumer wants.

Mrs Creagh thanked everybody who supported Salt Awareness Week: The Co-operative Group; McCain; M&S; Tesco; Heinz; Bird’s Eye; New Covent Garden Food Co and Walkers for their unrestricted grants that they provided towards the Week.

Professor Graham MacGregor

Professor MacGregor opened his speech by stating that “Blood pressure throughout its range is the biggest cause of death and disability in the UK and the world through the strokes, heart attacks and heart failure it causes, and that salt intake is the major factor that puts up blood pressure. “Our current salt is the major factor that puts up our blood pressure, particularly the rise in blood pressure that occurs with age. Reducing salt intake will lower blood pressure and will cause large reductions in the number of people suffering and dying from strokes, heart attacks and heart failure.”

Professor MacGregor went on to say that “hitting the target of 5-6 grams of salt a day, half of what we are now consuming, would save 70,000 people suffering from strokes and heart attacks, 35,000 of which are fatal and that’s per year.“

Professor MacGregor briefly reviewed the history of the CASH salt reduction campaign. CASH was set-up 10 years ago to reach a consensus with the food industry and Government regarding the importance of reducing salt. Subsequently, the Department of Health agreed with CASH and then the Food Standards Agency came on board. “The whole policy has been to get a gradual, sustained reduction in the amount of salt that’s added to all foods, and you’ll be aware that more than 80% of the salt we currently consume is already in foods before we eat it. In other words, currently we have little choice.”

Professor MacGregor then summarised the survey CASH carried out for Salt Awareness Week. CASH reviewed previous surveys where products had been ‘named and shamed’. We decided this year to re-look at these products and see what has happened over the last 4-5 years. “There is some really good news - more than two thirds of those products have had their salt content reduced and the average reduction was around 20%.” Professor MacGregor congratulated the food industry for the progress they have made, but at the same time highlighted that there are still many high salt products available which need to be reduced. Furthermore, Professor MacGregor stated that there was a very wide variation of salt concentration in the same product categories and tremendous pressure now needs to be exerted by CASH, the Government and the Food Standards Agency to get companies that have not reduced the amount of salt added to do so. Professor MacGregor also paid tribute to the media for their strong support over the last 10 years for publicising the dangers of eating too much salt, and making the public aware of foods that contain large amounts of hidden salt.

Professor MacGregor summarised by saying that we need to reduce the salt concentration in all foods where salt has been added and that includes restaurant and canteen food as well. CASH are calling on the public to “look at the new labels and decide for themselves whether they want to consume it and any food that has more than 1.25g of salt per 100g or more than 2.4g of salt per portion we suggest the public should not eat and eat alternatives that have less salt in… we wish the public now to vote with their feet and to stop buying these very high salt products which will force these companies to reduce the salt concentration.”

Professor MacGregor finished his speech by describing the international group World Action on Salt and Health (WASH) which CASH set-up at the end of 2006. This has already had a major impact in the US, Canada, Australia, the Far East and in some developing countries. Professor MacGregor stated that the UK “is leading the world in reducing salt in food and all eyes from all over the world are now on the UK looking at us to see how we are doing this and are we going to achieve it.”

Ms Caroline Flint

Ms Flint opened her speech by stating that what we eat, and what’s in what we eat, is an important part of tackling health inequalities and other public health issues such as heart disease. Ms Flint also highlighted the important role of organisations such as CASH in tackling public health issues because the Government cannot reduce salt consumption on its own, stating that CASH and other organisations “keep us on our toes” and are able to raise this debate in ways in which the Government cannot. Ms Flint went on the say that CASH should keep challenging the food industry and food retailers to think about the impact that they can have, and what they can do to be good partners with those who buy their foods.

Ms Flint also commented that while there has been progress, there is more to be done, and that while there is a growing awareness among people of the impact of salt on their diet, we need to make sure this awareness and changing of behaviour is at the same level through all groups of the community as part of tackling health inequalities. Ms Flint highlighted the importance of supporting people to change their behaviour and of making sure those in our poorer communities are not left behind in terms of the changes that are taking place. “Awareness is one thing, supporting people to change their behaviour in this regard is far, far more complicated.”

There is good news and some trends indicate that things are starting to impact on how people purchase what they eat e.g. 7.7% increase in fruit and vegetables this year compared to last, a much higher increase than previously. An increased understanding of health by the public seems to be translating into action by individuals buying foods for their families and we all have a part to play, the FSA, Government, CASH and stakeholders such as other NGOs, but also importantly retailers, in making sure this continues. Ms Flint also highlighted that healthy eating has become more about getting the competitive edge – thinking about healthy products is about shoppers wanting to know who’s on their side, who is supporting them to make those healthy choices.

Ms Flint also highlighted that a key issue is determining what works for the consumer. The Department of Health is working with the FSA, industry and NGOs to evaluate what works for shoppers. The labelling issue is crucial to this. “What will be interesting to see is how people purchase their foods based on what type of information is provided, and which type of information steers them to choose lower salt alternatives.” Ms Flint also highlighted that once consumers start choosing lower salt products, there will be an impact on those companies that have not reduced salt to reformulate their products. This is already happening with advertising saying “we’re using lemon instead of salt, we’re using more herbs”.

Ms Flint concluded her speech by thanking CASH for 10 years hard work and stating that CASH have made a difference but there is plenty more work to be done.

Dame Deirdre Hutton

Dame Deirdre began her speech by congratulating Professor MacGregor and the CASH team for the work they carry out raising awareness of the issues of salt and health, and commented that, while the food industry have responded positively and there have been big changes, there is more to be done. In addition to industry developments, public awareness of the salt issue has increased due to “some remarkably successful public health campaigning, again CASH has been a trailblazer”. However, Dame Deirdre cautioned that changing behaviour is much harder than increasing awareness and, although it can be done, it does not happen overnight. Dame Deirdre reiterated that the key to the campaign has been the steady reductions that “have taken the public with the industry” and consequently there is now a sound basis for helping consumers to make big changes.

Dame Deirdre reviewed the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) two-pronged strategy that was developed in 2004 with the target of reducing salt consumption from an average of 9.5g a day to 6g a day by 2010. One prong of the strategy was to tackle product reformulation by working with industry to reduce the amount of salt in processed foods. Since 2004 the number of trade bodies that have committed to reducing salt has tripled from about 25 to 70 covering 85 categories of processed foods. For example, half of all Tesco’s own-brand lines now meet the 2010 targets, as do all Boots Sandwiches and Sainsbury’s standard own-brand sliced bread. Dame Deirdre reiterated that the food service industry also has a major part to play in salt reduction and mentioned the example of Compass, a major supplier of schools and hospitals, which now requires its suppliers to meet, or be working towards, the 2010 salt targets.

The second prong of the campaign has been about public awareness. This started with the ‘Sid the Slug’ campaign in 2004, followed by the talking food packets in 2005 and Summer 2006. Over the course of these campaigns there has been an increase of a third in the number of adults who say they are making a special effort to cut down and the number of people who say that they check labels has doubled. Furthermore, there has been a 10-fold increase in the number of people aware of the 6g target. “What we have to do now is to convert all the people that know about 6 grams into people who actually do something about it.” The third phase of the FSA’s campaign in Spring 2007 will focus on this behaviour change with even greater contributions from partner organisations. We need to generate so much activity that it becomes unthinkable that people will not look at the salt label on packets and then choose the lower version.”

Dame Deirdre highlighted the importance of-front-of pack signpost labelling in creating behaviour change and concluded that “it is a triumph that so many people in the industry have recognised that front-of-pack labelling is good.” Dame Deirdre explained that the FSA has set-up research that will report on which front-of-pack labelling system results in the greatest change in consumer behaviour.

Dame Deirdre concluded her speech by commenting that the salt reduction campaign provides businesses with the opportunity of showing customers that they really care about them in a very practical way by reducing salt and enabling them to achieve better health. It should also show those companies that have not got the message that they need to rethink. “Healthy eating is popular among consumers and doing what is popular among your consumers is actually very good business.”

Ms Jillian Pitt

Ms Pitt’s speech focused on the National Consumer Council’s report Short Changed on Health? which reviews how supermarkets can affect your chances of having a healthy diet. Ms Pitt opened her speech by highlighting that 26 million people in the UK eat too much salt. For the last two years the National Consumer Council (NCC) have rated supermarkets on how they help consumers shop, cook and eat more healthily. The top four supermarkets (Asda, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Morrison’s) account for three quarters of the national food bill with 1 in 3 pounds spent in Tesco. So it is important that supermarkets take responsibility for consumers eating more healthily. Ms Pitt congratulated retailers on the progress that has been made. “Many of the standard products that we surveyed had much less salt in them than they had last year.” However, within the economy range products only 35% of the products surveyed met the Food Standard Agency’s salt targets.

There were also great inconsistencies across the economy range products. For example, Asda’s ‘Smart Price’ products surveyed had more salt than the standard equivalent, within Sainsbury’s ‘Basics’ products surveyed the pizza, tomato soup, sausages and white bread contained more salt than the standard equivalent and half of Morisson’s ‘Betta Buy’ products surveyed contained more salt than their standard equivalent. “When the retailers were rated on just their economy ranges using the FSA‘s salt targets, not one supermarket got half marks, never mind 10 out of 10. So there is a clearly a lot more work that can be done here on the economy ranges.” Ms Pitt commented that industry and the retailers have shown what tremendous progress they have made in their standard ranges and she urged them to “narrow the gap in health inequalities and stop short changing those consumers who rely on those economy ranges.”

Ms Pitt also highlighted the importance of “clear, at a glance labelling” to help consumers make healthier choices and so that they can easily compare the salt content of an economy range product with a standard product.

Stands: House of Commons reception

Six companies had stands: five retailers – Cooperative Group, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, M&S and Waitrose, and one food manufacturer – McCain. All of the companies attending displayed literature about the work they have been carrying out on salt reduction.

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