Reducing salt in packaged foods is probably the single best form of preventive health care not currently being tried in Canada, short of waving a magic wand and turning everyone into a smoothie-drinking, iron-pumping yoga practitioner. Someone has to hold the federal government accountable for making sure its proposed reduction - 30 per cent of daily salt consumption, by 2016 - actually happens. The provincial health ministers seem inclined to do just that.
Their call for the development of national regulations to be prepared, in case the food industry fails to live up to the voluntary reductions Ottawa will be asking from them, shows that the issue has got their attention, if belatedly. That call to prepare regulations does seem a little premature, in that the voluntary guidelines have not even been developed yet for specific foods. But the focus on salt at the health ministers' meetings in St. John's this week, if it has the effect of persuading packaged-food suppliers and restaurant owners they should do their utmost to meet the voluntary standards that Ottawa says will be ready by 2011, is probably a good thing.
Salt reduction desperately needs political leadership. Ottawa did set up a Sodium Working Group in 2007, but it moved at a glacial pace, and when it finally did set out a sketchy plan this summer, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq issued a tepid news release, saying the recommendations would be assessed over the coming months. Canada cannot have 13 sets of rules for the food industry; only Ottawa is in a position to act.
There's a financial argument for salt reduction that the provinces have woken up to. Billions of dollars in savings lie ahead if Canadians reduce their daily intake from the current 3,400 milligrams to 2,300 mg, the maximum safe amount.
Oh, and by the way, cutting salt from packaged foods, which provide roughly 75 per cent of the salt in the typical person's diet, could prevent most cardiovascular disease, and save thousands of lives. It's a jolt to the heart as large as that provided by a widespread cut in tobacco use.
Britain has shown that a voluntary system can work, if enough energy and creativity are applied to it. The food industry needs to know it won't be able to wriggle out of its voluntary obligations. Ottawa should affirm that it supports the working group's recommendations, including an annual report on how the voluntary system is working. Canada can't afford not to undertake this form of prevention.