The UK’s strategy to lower salt intake may have contributed to close to 10,000 additional cases of heart disease or stroke, as well as 1,500 cases of stomach cancer, from 2011 to 2018, a new study has claimed.

The research from Imperial College London, published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, looked at the impact of the Public Health Responsibility Deal. The programme, introduced in England in 2011, placed emphasis on voluntary action by the private sector to encourage the changes in lifestyle necessary to achieve preventive health objectives.

Before the Public Health Responsibility Deal was brought in, the UK Food Standards Agency led what was still a voluntary strategy but it included agreements with the food industry to reformulate processed foods, backed up with threats of legislation.

Researchers found that, after the deal was introduced, yearly declines in salt intake fell significantly. The academics behind the study estimated it could be responsible for thousands of extra cases of conditions associated with excess dietary salt and they have now called for Public Health England to implement a more robust policy.

In the year 2000-01, the average daily dietary salt intake in the UK was 10.5g for men and 8g for women, the research said.

Between 2003 and 2010, the average intake fell by 0.2g among men and by 0.12g among women each year. After 2011, the annual decline slowed to 0.11 among men and 0.07 among women.

“Public-private partnerships such as the responsibility deal, which lack robust and independent target setting, monitoring and enforcement, are unlikely to produce optimal health gains,” the study said.

The Food and Drink Federation, the trade body representing food manufacturers operating in the UK, said the companies that are its members had “led the way in voluntarily reducing salt in food”.

Tim Rycroft, the FDF’s chief operating officer, added: “Compared to four years ago, FDF member products contribute 14% less salt to the average shopping basket, continuing to build on two decades of steady reformulation work following successive voluntary targets. 

“Thanks to the huge amount of work that has already been completed over a long period of time, it is no surprise that the rate of change will slow down. Most ingredients in food perform a wide range of functions, and go well beyond adding flavour, such as providing texture or shelf-life. This means taking anything out of food (through reformulation), be it salt, sugar or calories, is not straightforward.”

Rycroft added: “We recognise there is more to be done and manufacturers remain committed to the government’s various reformulation programmes.”

Graham MacGregor, the chairman of UK campaign group Action on Salt, claimed the research “confirms once more that the Responsibility Deal was a disaster for public health”.

He said: “It slowed down salt reduction in the UK, resulting in thousands of strokes, heart failure and heart attacks every year, particularly in the more socially deprived, many of which could have been prevented. This reinforces the urgent need for a robust system where we generate worthwhile reductions in salt intake which make a positive and lasting impact. It is now up to the Health Minister, Public Health England and the Government to set up a coherent strategy where the food industry is instructed what to do, rather than the food industry telling the Government what to do, which currently seems to be the case.

“The UK currently has no active salt reduction strategy which is appalling. In fact, the last set of salt reduction targets expired at the end of 2017. It goes without saying, we now need to get our salt reduction strategy back on track for the benefit of public health, our overburdened NHS and the economy.”