Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq sent a dangerously wrong message on an important prevention issue yesterday by being absent when Canada's long-overdue salt-reduction strategy was introduced at a news conference in Ottawa.
Would she have been AWOL if the issue were obesity? Smoking? The need to jog and stay fit? Probably not. The message she sent yesterday is that a new system of voluntary guidelines for the food-processing and restaurant industries doesn't really matter to the Canadian government. "Voluntary" means "dither if you wish." Why should the food industry spend large amounts of time and money on reducing an ingredient it sees as vital to taste, texture and shelf-life when the Health Minister can't be bothered to squeeze it into her schedule?
A voluntary system can be effective, as Britain has shown, but it needs some moral and political energy behind it. Instead, the Health Minister issued an unenthusiastic news release: "Over the coming months, we will work with our governmental partners to assess the report's recommendations and determine how they can best be addressed." Months to assess? Has Ms. Aglukkaq not read the strategy, which was written by her department's director general of nutrition policy and promotion?
Even at that, the reduction "strategy" hardly feels complete. There is no bold labelling campaign as in Britain - which has a stop sign on high-salt foods. There is merely an intention to improve labelling. The goal of the strategy, a reduction of 30 per cent in the typical Canadian's diet by 2016, was announced last fall. And it's taken nearly three years of discussion at Health Canada's Sodium Working Group (which includes food-industry representatives) to reach even this point.
Worse yet, there are still no published reduction targets for the food industry, just draft targets for some foods. Ms. Aglukkaq's statement did say that Health Canada expects to have targets ready by early in 2011. The cart is said to be ready, but the horse isn't in harness yet.
Reducing salt is the single best approach to saving lives, preventing disability and trimming billions of dollars from the health-care system. "The vast bulk of the burden of cardiovascular disease is preventable through a single, inexpensive, cost-effective measure - primarily, through a strategy to reduce consumption of dietary salt across the population," the Public Health Agency of Canada says. Reducing salt intake would do as much for the heart as a reduction in obesity or cholesterol, or the decline in cigarette use. But Canadians can't reduce salt in their diets on their own; 77 per cent of salt intake is from processed foods. They need the government to show leadership.
That leadership is still lacking. Given Ms. Aglukkaq's apparent absence of urgency, the food industry could hardly be blamed if it takes its sweet time on salt reduction.