A sensible approach to cutting salt in processed and fast food - Macleans.ca

A sensible approach to cutting salt in processed and fast food

Demanding better food labelling does not amount to nanny-state control

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Kevin Dooley/Flickr

The Canadian Medical Association Journal’s new report on relatively high salt levels in Canadian fast food, in a comparison of six countries, should prompt new questions about why on earth Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq last year disbanded a group established in 2007 to tackle this health issue.

The federal Sodium Working group was on course to push for some modest, but practical measures, like requiring standardized labelling to allow consumers to more easily figure out how much salt processed food products contain. It was monitoring how well food companies performed when it came to reducing salt. This was hardly heavy-handed intervention.

Yet Aglukkaq seemed to think the working group went too far, and instead proposed a vague policy of “working with industry and other organizations.” CBC reports here that the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association would prefer consumer education and gradual salt reductions to avoid having folks suddenly find their burgers too bland (I paraphrase).

I agree that slapping mandatory salt-content regulations on the processed food and restaurant industries would be going too far. But what would be wrong with a combination of easy-to-understand labelling, plainly worded Health Canada recommendations for sodium reductions, and reliable monitoring and reporting on which companies are following sensible guidelines and which aren’t?

That’s more or less what the Sodium Working Group wanted. Here’s a summary of recommendations from its 2010 report, which do not amount to nanny-state control, but merely a an approach that emphasizes targets and transparency:

  • a structured voluntary reduction of sodium levels in processed food products and foods sold in restaurant and food service establishments;
  • education and awareness of consumers, industry, health professionals and other key stakeholders; and
  • research.

Integral to the strategy are monitoring and evaluation.
The SWG has recommended a voluntary, structured approach to reduce sodium content in foods, involving:

  • published sodium reduction targets for foods;
  • defined timelines;
  • a mechanism for public commitment by industry to the targets;
  • a plan for monitoring progress by a body other than the food industry; and
  • a plan for independent evaluation of the success of the program with the option of taking stronger measures as necessary depending on progress
There’s been no clear explanation from the federal government as to why this strategy was deemed too aggressive to follow. It’s possible the thrust will now shift to the provincial level, as suggested at a so-called salt summit held a couple of months ago in Toronto.