The UK government is currently in the process of reassessing the 2012 voluntary salt reduction targets, with collaboration from public health agencies and organisations – including CASH – and industry. Targets will be set for each individual product category, with the overall aim of reducing average salt intake to under 6 g per person per day – the UK government’s upper recommended limit for good health.
But MacGregor says the industry needs to work faster. At the current rate of salt reduction, he says it would take another 12 years to reach the recommended average intake level.
“We need more urgency,” he said. “We are in a dilemma because we want to praise the food industry for their progress but we also want to get at them for not doing it quickly enough.”
He says it is estimated that for every gram of salt reduction, about 6,000 to 7,000 lives could be saved each year.
“It is amazing that we are making any progress at all when you make the industry itself responsible for something it doesn’t really want to do,” he said.
Meanwhile, the industry insists that it is working to reduce salt as quickly as it can.
“Food manufacturers have been committed to reducing salt in their products for many years and gradual reductions in salt levels have achieved considerable results,” says Barbara Gallani, director of the regulatory, science and health division of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), a trade body that represents the interests of the UK’s food and beverage industry.
“Recent Kantar data show that over the last five years alone FDF members have reduced salt in their products by 10% while continuing to meet consumer expectations with regard to taste and texture,” she said via email.
She added that new technical solutions were needed to meet some of the 2012 targets, citing a report released by Leatherhead Food Research last year (commissioned by the FDF and the British Retail Consortium), which summarised some of the main challenges and potential solutions.
‘Products are already on the market’
However, MacGregor claims that the industry continually says it has reached the limit in terms of what it can achieve, only to reach new targets soon after.
“There are products already on the market that are below the targets being set. That tells you that all of these things can be overcome,” he said.
“…It’s a question of attitude. If the food industry feels it is being watched and policed then they will get on with it.”
Targets under discussion are likely to aim for about another 10% reduction, a goal that he says is “too easy”.
Brands vs. private label
CASH regularly releases the results of its own surveys looking at current salt levels, and it has found that popular brands often lag behind the supermarkets’ own-brand products in terms of salt reduction.
“I think if I were a branded manufacturer, I might want to lead, but I suppose they want the supermarkets to take the risk,” MacGregor said.
“We feel the food industry has done a terrific job but it still has much further to go, and we would like to see branded manufacturers taking a much more entrepreneurial role and not come up with these excuses all the time.”
Apart from technical issues, he claims that brands may be too conservative about changing their recipes and over-reliant on consumer tasting panels.
What about taste?
“It has to be gradual. The question is ‘how gradual?’ We know that a 10% reduction cannot be detected by the salt taste receptors,” said MacGregor.
“A lot of the problem with consumer testing panels is that when you compare one with another directly, you can of course taste the difference. But that’s not how you eat cereal at breakfast.”
He does not accept that taste has been as big an issue for food manufacturers as they claim – and invites companies to send letters of complaint to CASH.
“We don’t accept that taste is a big problem without evidence,” he said.
So, where does it end? Does CASH expect companies to reformulate their products with no salt at all?
“We are obviously not nuts,” said MacGregor. “If there really is a genuine reason that it can’t be done, then we recognise that.”