Food Industry forces FSA to give way on salt targets – UK population will suffer.

March 21st 2006

Comment from Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) on FSA final salt targets.

Professor Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine and Chairman of Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) said:

“The UK is leading the world in trying to reduce the huge amount of unnecessary salt in processed foods.  The FSA calculated the amount of salt that would need to be removed from our food if we are to reach the target of no more than 6g per day for adults which would prevent a minimum of 70,000 strokes and heart attacks each year, half of which would be fatal.  

“In November last year, following ‘consultation’ with the food industry, these reduction targets were raised in many categories of foods.  And now, despite a concerted effort by CASH, the National Heart Forum, the Blood Pressure Association, the Stroke Association and the British Heart Foundation and many others, the FSA has been forced to agree to even higher levels of salt in some food categories.  This action by the food industry will mean that the 6g target will not be met by 2010, resulting in many thousands of unnecessary deaths.

“This is a very sad day for the UK population.  The power of the food industry is once again in evidence and the purely commercial interests of food companies have been allowed to prevail.  CASH has repeatedly pointed out to both the FSA and the industry that there are no reasons why the salt content of foods can not be reduced much further.

“It is particularly disappointing that foods aimed specifically at children, such as processed cheese products and snacks like Quavers and Wotsits, are still going to be allowed to contain more salt than sea water.”

Malcolm Kane, CASH member, independent food safety consultant and retired head of food safety, Sainsbury's (1980 - 1999) said:

“This is a broadly disappointing report. It reveals a food industry still defending the use of excess salt in processed foods based upon weak arguments referring to 'technical reasons' and 'food safety' which are very largely irrelevant to contemporary food processing conditions.

“The report reveals a UK meat products industry explaining excessive salt use for reasons of weak process control such that British Ham can achieve a 40% lower salt content than British Bacon….with no embarrassment or irony. Similarly weak arguments are presented to defend the continued use of excess salt in the humble British sausage. The dairy industry pretends that salt variations in salted butters are 'inherent to the processing of butters' despite the obvious absurdity that margarine processing contradicts this. Ethnic Ready Meals require nearly twice as much salt when sold in a packet as similar products purchased from a 'takeaway', according to this report. Tomato ketchup manufacturers appear to have doubts about the safety of their products if they reduce salt levels, which might be more concerning were it true. The most disappointing comment to note is from canned fish importers, where it is still incorrectly maintained that food safety reasons require added salt.
“It is also disappointing to note that such arguments continue to be accepted without effective technical challenge.”

Selected comments are as follows;
1.3        Sausages
There are no arguable process control reasons why salt content in sausages cannot be controlled to any specific level with a 0.1% average accuracy. Sausage meat mix is highly comminuted and the degree of product homogeneity must be extremely high. Salt levels in British sausages should be able to be implemented to the target level or even lower almost overnight, simply by formulation changes. The only relevant reason for failing to do this is a conservative concern about consumer acceptance. The target year of 2010 is wholly unacceptable.
Cooked sausages will, it is accepted, incur cooking losses which will adjust the average remaining salt content. It is not difficult however, to calculate the cooking losses back into the formulation of those sausages destined for commercially cooked products and lower the input salt level to account for the cooking losses.

1.8        Canned Frankfurters and Hotdogs
It seems that the food industry is arguing to retain the salt levels in canned frankfurters because of some safety concerns with chilled frankfurters. This is a ridiculous position to adopt. Canned frankfurters receive a full sterilisation and therefore require no added chemicals for their fundamental safety. It is perfectly possible to produce chilled frankfurters in hermetically sealed plastic packs to similar standards. If there are any chilled products on the market that fail to reach adequate safety standards then they should be withdrawn immediately. Any consideration of salt levels in this debate would be irrelevant. The industry should identify the products it has these safety concerns about.
The 1.4% salt level accepted by the FSA as a target for canned frankfurters should be considered against the consumption level by the average frankfurter consumer. They will typically consume several frankfurter sausages at a single sitting, implying a significant proportion of the target maximum daily salt consumption.

2          Breads and Morning Goods
No technical arguments are now presented for the use of salt in bread, other than consumer acceptance. Speciality breads it is argued will have a higher salt content by virtue of the use of added ingredients such as cheese or olives etc which themselves contain salt. This is a weak argument as it is quite feasible to check the salt content of such ingredients before manufacture and compensate for their intrinsic salt contribution in the basic bread formulation. Similarly, chemically leavened scones can have their formulations adjusted to account for the sodium contribution of the raising agent.
The importance of bread in the UK diet cannot be overemphasised and the level of salt in breads is therefore of critical importance.

3          Breakfast Cereals
Breakfast cereals are as important in the UK diet as bread, particularly for younger consumers and schoolchildren.
The arguments put forward by the breakfast cereal industry are weak in that they draw no distinction between processed compound cereals, particularly those highly sweetened extruded cereals targeted at children, which are unacceptably high in salt, and basic cereals like Puffed Wheat, Shredded Wheat and Porridge, which contain no added salt at all. There is no technical reason why Muesli should contain added salt, despite the report comments to the contrary.

4          Cheese
We note with disappointment in the cheese industry that no comments whatsoever were made to support their rejection of the FSA target salt levels for cheddars and similar hard cheeses. This is all the more disappointing given the importance of these basic cheeses in the UK diet.
More specifically, we note that processed cheeses retain extremely high salt levels and express concern that these products are almost exclusively targeted at children.
We accept that there are some theoretical food safety considerations with processed cheese where higher salt levels can have a beneficial effect, but point out that the reason for this is largely the industry's reliance on an extended shelf life and use of the ambient distribution system.

5          Butter
The dairy industry's arguments that variations in salt levels in salted butters are 'inherent in the processing of butters' are simply not credible. Butter is by definition a highly blended water-in-fat emulsion with a very high degree of intrinsic homogeneity. There should be no technically insurmountable reason why salted butter should not be produced to any target salt content with a high degree of average content and consistency.
This weak technical argument is all the more concerning given the critical importance of butter in the UK diet. It should be noted by contrast that margarines and other yellow fats all achieve a significantly lower salt level than the dairy industry achieves with butter, and that similar manufacturing processes and equipment are involved at the final stages of production. Many dairy companies also produce yellow fats because of the production similarities.

7          Baked beans
Baked bean products manufacturers have rejected a 0.75% salt target in place of a 0.8% one, suggesting their accuracy of control is +/- 0.025%, which is doubtful. It is more likely they have approached this issue in the spirit of a commercial negotiation than with an obvious concern for public health.

8          Ready Meals
While it may be correct that traditional Asian meals as sold in the UK have had relatively high salt levels, the suggestion that high salt is 'central' to these products begs the whole question about salt in the diet and assumes that such cuisine must have some special exemption from safe dietary formulation. Asian people are as entitled to a healthy diet as Europeans and this is all the more reason why the traditional salt levels in these products must be challenged. It is also paradoxical that the report reveals the popular 'takeaway meals' of similar if less adventurous formulations, (section 29, page 12) apparently only require about half of the salt content of their more upmarket equivalents (05% against 0.8%).
The significance of all these popular products in the contemporary UK diet must be factored in as a paramount consideration.

11         Crisps and Savoury Snacks
It is disingenuous of the snack industry to suggest that 'difficulties due to processing techniques used' are responsible for not being able to meet the target salt contents for flavoured crisps and similar products. Salt is used as a diluent carrier for the various flavours used in these products and the persistence of the use of salt is a result of the failure of the industry to develop more appropriate methods of flavour addition. This argument would be more amusing were it not for the significance of these snack foods within the UK diet.
The industry claims there are technical constraints to reducing salt with extruded, pelleted and salt & vinegar products.
CASH would welcome the opportunity for our technical personnel to review these technical constraints in detail with the snack industry.

14         Table Sauces
The food industry rather ominously indicates there 'may be product stability and food safety issues' with reducing the salt levels of tomato ketchups. These are acid products with high soluble sugar solids. We suggest the industry should reveal and discuss the formulations of any suspect products in the light of the Codex Alimentarius endorsed CIMSCEE formulae for microbiological safety and stability of mayonnaises and emulsified condiment sauces (i.e. tomato ketchups). While such products may offer stability challenges, post opening and with ambient domestic storage, such stability problems should not go beyond product spoilage by non-pathogenic microrganisms such as yeasts. Any such product that is so formulated as to critically be reliant upon its formulated salt level for safety should be carefully HACCP reviewed and considered for withdrawal from the UK market.
Similar arguments apply to low fat mayonnaise products, but we note that no food safety issues are claimed for these products.

16         Biscuits
The report contains disappointing reluctance of the biscuit industry to lower the salt levels to any significant degree, despite the importance of these products in the UK diet as a whole. The only feasible reason for this can be reluctance due to concerns over consumer acceptance, which will never be addressed by temerity.

17         Pasta
Pot noodles must be singled out for particular criticism. These are cheap snack products of minimal overall nutritional contribution, yet which have a significant presence in the diet of their target consumers; single younger people on limited incomes and with reduced dietary awareness.

23         Canned Fish
The euphemistic reference from the canned fish importing industry to 'standardised industry preservation techniques' refers to the widespread use of tabletted salt addition to canned fish, pre-processing. This is a historical process designed to simplify the salt dosage rate to a 'counting' process of one or two salt tablets per can, depending on can size.  This excuse also reveals the fundamental commercial weakness of canned fish importers, who tend to buy 'bright' (i.e. unlabelled) canned fish by negotiation after production, then arrange labelling appropriately afterwards. The use of salt tablets has nothing to do with preservation techniques. Such use of salt tablets only reflects poor, technically backward process control with respect to salt addition. Salt addition in canned tuna fish is a traditional flavour additive and as such must be open to challenge. The canned fish importing industry should know that all such canned fish products receive a full sterilisation process that is designed to provide adequate product safety without any added chemicals such as salt. Only specialist products such as Anchovies which are preserved in extremely high salt levels would be an exception. Canned Salmon is correctly recorded as being considered for 'no added salt' trials, which is both welcomed and simultaneously disproves the previous erroneous comment regarding the importance of salt to the safety of canned tuna.