CASH chairman believes UK has led the way on salt in soup

CASH chairman believes UK has led the way on salt in soup

Last week, Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) published some alarming figures on salt levels in soup. They showed that there is still much work to do on salt reduction but, as Professor Graham MacGregor, chairman of CASH, tells Ben Cooper, much has been achieved and the example set in the UK is now being followed elsewhere.

The publication last week of a report by the campaign group, Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH), that many of the soups marketed in the UK still contain high levels of salt could prod brand-owners to pick up the pace on salt reduction but, overall, it appears food companies have been making good progress in this area.

Speaking to just-food, Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, Queen Mary, University of London and chairman of CASH, says the industry in the UK should be congratulated on the progress in salt reduction.

“In general apart from one or two really awful examples the food industry has cooperated and the experience we’ve built up in the UK where most things now – not everything but most things – have been reduced in salt by about 30% over the past four years is an incredible achievement. And that has been done voluntarily and without the public really knowing it’s happened.”

CASH began its campaign in 1996 and was instrumental in the Food Standards Agency (FSA) taking up the cause. On the back of a report by its Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), released in 2003, the FSA committed to a three-pronged strategy to reduce salt intake, comprising consumer education, encouraging food companies to reduce the amount of salt they put into food and front-of-pack labelling.

The FSA has been running a public awareness campaign since 2004 aimed at encouraging consumers to reduce their salt intake. But MacGregor feels it is the negotiation with the food industry to reduce salt levels in packaged food that has been crucial. As 80% of the salt we consume has already been put into food before we buy it, from a public health standpoint, the “surreptitious” reduction of salt in packaged food is far more effective, he says.

Since the FSA launched its campaign, a host of companies, including all the major UK retailers and food manufacturers such as Kellogg, Arla Foods, Birds Eye Iglo, Kraft Foods and PepsiCo have announced reductions in salt in major branded ranges. Last May, the FSA published new voluntary salt reduction targets for 2012 for 80 categories of foods.

According to the SACN report, average daily salt intake was 9.5g in 2003 and it recommended this be lowered to 6g. The reduction from 9.5g to 6g, MacGregor says, would prevent some 20,000 stroke and heart attack deaths a year. The 1g reduction achieved between 2005 and 2008 has already reduced stroke and heart attack deaths by 6,000, he adds.

While MacGregor says the campaign’s advertising could have been more “hard-hitting”, and front-of-pack labelling remains “chaotic”, overall he believes the salt reduction programme in the UK is “the most successful public health policy since the introduction of clean water and drains”.

“If I think back to when we started in 1996 I would never have predicted that the UK would be leading the world in this," MacGregor says. He notes with some pride that the measures announced in New York earlier this year closely mirror those taken in the UK. “We obviously fully support this initiative. Basically what they’ve done is copied more or less exactly what has occurred in the UK over the last five to six years.”

In January, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene announced plans for a voluntary reduction in salt levels in 61 categories of packaged food and 25 types of restaurant foods by 25% over the next five years.

The US is not the only country where the influence of what has been achieved in the UK is being felt. CASH has also created the World Action on Salt and Health (WASH), which is an affiliation of campaign groups across many countries. MacGregor points to successful drives to lower salt intake in Canada, China and Australia in particular.

However, CASH’s recent findings on soup suggest the work in the UK is far from finished. While it said that progress had been made, CASH reported that 99% of the 575 soups it surveyed contained more salt per portion than a 34.5g packet of crisps, one quarter individually still failed to meet the 2010 FSA average voluntary target for soup of 0.6g of salt per 100g, and only 6% could be labelled as ‘green’ in the traffic-light nutritional labelling system.

CASH found that in most cases it was supermarket own-brands that had the lowest salt levels, while the major brands “are lagging behind”. In total, CASH said there were 23 products available in supermarkets which contained 2g or more salt per portion, and 18 of these were brands, including those from Heinz, New Covent Garden and Batchelors.

The ten lowest salt levels, both per portion and by 100g, were supermarket own-brands including Morrison’s Chicken Noodle soup (0.5g/200g portion) and Asda Good For You Tomato & Basil soup (0.5g/200g portion). While supermarkets met 2010 targets in 93% of cases, only 66% of the branded products had reached the 2010 target, the campaign group stated.

Interestingly, MacGregor recounts that when CASH began its campaign it was retailers like Sainsbury’s and Marks and Spencer who made the early running, providing a lead that branded manufacturers followed. “One or two leading supermarkets took the initiative,” he says. “They showed they could do it; then the food industry thought 'we’d better do something'.”

While he remains upbeat about the progress that has been made in the UK, he is adamant that more needs to be done. “We need to do more, we need to do it quicker, but I think new targets that have been set in the UK will reduce salt even further by 2012 and I think most of the companies are going to comply and I think it’s tremendous news.”

MacGregor is also extremely optimistic about the trend internationally. Partly he believes this will be helped by the international nature of the food industry. “It’s very difficult for international companies to reduce salt in one country and not another. What’s the justification? Is there something very special about the UK?”

He also believes that the UK has provided an important model for other countries to follow. “I think the UK food industry, with us and the Food Standards Agency, has led the world and I think it’s a major achievement. It will happen throughout the world in the next five to ten years, there’s no doubt about it.”