Salt reduction is off the table as a federal public-health campaign. The federal government hasn’t said so publicly. In fact, it boasts of a goal of reducing salt consumption from the gluttonous 3,400 mg a day to a more moderate 2,300 mg a day by 2016. But it has no plan.
It was only last New Year’s Day – in 2011 – that Prime Minister Stephen Harper called this salt-reduction goal one of his major accomplishments of the previous year. But the proof is in the salty pudding.
Canada has talked a good game on salt. Five years ago, the Conservative government established a working group of health experts, industry members and government officials to develop a plan. That plan, three years in the making, centred around the drafting of voluntary targets for salt reduction in prepared foods such as waffles and cookies. Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq then disbanded the working group, and Health Canada floated a more timid idea – sales-weighted averages for salt-reduction (some products could be high in salt if others were low). Now, even that idea seems to have floated away.
The new answer appears to dispense with a serious strategy. “We believe that by working with industry and other organizations we can ultimately achieve better results that will provide low-sodium options for Canadians,” Ms. Aglukkaq’s official spokesman, Steve Outhouse, said in an e-mail to The Globe. Seventeen health groups, including the Canadian Medical Association, have urged Ottawa to take the issue more seriously. Low-sodium options don’t sound like a way to achieve a population-wide reduction.
Reducing salt in prepared foods could save thousands of lives and billions of dollars. Most cardiovascular disease is preventable through reduced consumption of salt, the Public Health Agency of Canada says. Salt reduction is as important for the heart as reducing obesity.
Britain has had success with a gradual and voluntary approach that enlists the food industry’s co-operation – the public’s palate accepted incremental reductions. Keeping an eye on a voluntary system need not be a “bureaucratic nightmare,” as Mr. Outhouse puts it. Canada has a voluntary system in place for trans fat reductions in prepared foods.
But the Canadian government has allowed the industry’s reluctance to rule. As long as Canadians continue to die because they consume too much salt, it is not too late for the government to show leadership.