The Department of Health (DH) published the updated voluntary thresholds for 2017 today (March 7) as part of the Public Health Responsibility Deal (PHRD) it established with industry.
In addition to the renewed PHRD pledge on salt targets for packaged foodstuffs, a separate pledge has been published for products sold through ‘out-of-home’ foodservice channels , including restaurants.
Packaged foodstuffs, maximum salt levels for cooked, uncured meats have been dropped. But salt ceilings for a range of meat products, including bacon, ham and cured meats, sausages and burgers have either stayed the same or have risen.
That follows food industry concerns that lowering them could hit shelf-life and quality. Targets for hard cheeses, including cheddar, have also been relaxed.
Professor Graham MacGregor, chairman of lobby group Consensus Action on Salt & Health, told FoodManufacture.co.uk he was dissatisfied 2012 salt targets had been relaxed in many areas and claimed the fact that some meat and cheese manufacturers had met targets should spur on others.
“I am not happy. They [the targets] could have been a lot stronger. There’s a lot of nonsense talked about not hitting salt targets. There are products at or below the  targets. If one manufacturer can do it, so can another.”
He criticised the DH for not funding research into the benefits of cutting salt content in food and drink, asserting it could lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of strokes. “The cost benefits are huge [for the National Health Service], yet the Department of Health won’t spend any money on research.”
‘Lives irreversibly lost’
MacGregor also blasted the slow progress made on salt targets since the PHRD was set up in 2011. “Several thousand lives have been irreversibly lost that would have been saved. The Responsibility Deal is pathetic, because it doesn’t have any enforcement.”
However, he stressed he was happy updated targets had been published and that some progress was being made. “I am very pleased that at last this has happened, but not that this has happened so late.”
Some had argued processors used salt mainly as a water-retaining agent in meats such as ham and had claimed this was unnecessary, said Andrea Martinez-Inchausti, assistant director for food policy at the British Retail Consortium.
‘Not the case’
However, she said: “This is not the case. Salt is used more as a preservative agent in ham [for example]. The use of additives is now banned in the organic production of ham, so additives are not available in the same way as before anyway.”
The DH figures have introduced the concept of average salt content per 100g of product, which is lower than the maximum content allowed in many categories. However, maximum levels per 100g have been retained and are frequently greater than those outlined in 2012.
Maximum salt thresholds for categories such as bread, breakfast cereals, ready meals, soups, cakes and pastries, sweet biscuits and most types of cheeses, crisps and table sauces have been dropped.
However, aside from the figures for meat, the maximum threshold for savoury biscuits has been increased and the level for beverages has been kept the same.
Despite World Health Organisation recommendations to lower salt intake per person to 5g a day, the European Food Safety Authority and the Food Standards Agency have maintained a 6g daily guideline.