Canada's resolve to cut down on salt consumption just became a little more suspect. Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq has disbanded a special committee that created a broad plan to help this salt-loving nation curb its harmful habit. She has watered down the salt-reduction targets for individual products, and raised the possibility that the public monitoring of industry progress toward those targets will not reveal the names of individual products or companies. Canadians are being asked to take on faith that a slower and less transparent approach will still yield the same cut in salt consumption in the same time.
It all feels reminiscent of the government's slow-and-steady (or at least slow) attitude to reducing greenhouse gases. In both, there are economic interests at play. In both, making reductions is not easy. In both, the science is clear. Very little will happen without strong leadership.
Does one hand not know what the other is doing? Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in his New Year's Day message, listed the declaration of a salt-reduction goal as one of his government's 13 accomplishments for families. Seven of those accomplishments involved crime bills. Outside of crime, then, salt is one of the few things this government is boasting about.
The task of bringing daily salt consumption down from the current, deadly 3,400 milligrams per person to a more reasonable 2,300 milligrams per person by 2016 now falls to the Food Regulatory Advisory Committee, which has many jobs to do, not one. It may yet do a wonderful job. Or salt may disappear into a bureaucratic netherworld. Who will know if timely progress is being made?
Salt reduction could prevent most cardiovascular disease, save thousands of lives and billions of dollars. But roughly 75 per cent of salt intake is in processed foods, so for most Canadians cutting salt on their own is nearly impossible. Britain has made strides with a voluntary approach, cutting salt gradually, a little more each year, so the consumers' palate doesn't rebel.
The Sodium Working Group, set up in 2007, worked painstakingly (perhaps too painstakingly) to produce a broad plan in July, 2010. That working group should be restored to a meaningful role, perhaps in monitoring progress towards the salt-reduction goals, lest Mr. Harper's boast begin to look empty.
Editor's note: Daily salt consumption is currently estimated at 3,400 milligrams per person. An earlier version of this editorial contained incorrect information. This version has been corrected.