A federal task force has delivered a plan to cut Canada's salt habit to a teaspoon a day - a change that could save tens of thousands of lives a year - but insiders fear it has only tepid support from government and the food industry.
The long-awaited report, released Thursday by the federally appointed Sodium Working Group, maps out the steps to reduce sodium consumption from 3,400 to 2,300 milligrams a day.
Nearly 80 per cent of the sodium most Canadians consume is added by manufacturers to food items. But any action by the industry will be voluntary, and some working group members don't believe that will be enough. As for the federal government, some of the report's principal authors believe the Health Ministry is already backing away.
"I don't think this report and the strategies are going to be sufficient to achieve the reduction of sodium," said Kevin Willis, director of partnerships at the Canadian Stroke Network and a member of the working group. "Every year that we delay there are tens of thousands of premature deaths and cardiovascular events, billions of dollars of health-care costs, that could be avoided."
The working group's mandate was to seek voluntary action by the food industry rather than intervention by Ottawa. The working group is now drafting targets for how much food processors should reduce sodium if Canadians are to reach the goal of consuming 2,300 milligrams of it a day by 2016. The report also calls for changes to nutrition labels to highlight sodium.
Industry associations representing food manufacturers, retailers and restaurants all pledged their support Thursday for the report, but some were already suggesting the goals it sets will be difficult - if not impossible - to meet.
"It would be folly not to caution that we are going into uncharted territories, and while the food manufacturing industry is definitely committed to working with the working group to bring sodium levels down in the Canadian diet, it is going to take a concerted effort," said Phyllis Tanaka, vice-president of scientific and regulatory affairs for food policy with Food and Consumer Products of Canada, an industry group representing many of the country's largest food companies.
Responses of that kind are troubling, Dr. Willis said.
"It shouldn't come as a surprise to industry that they need to look for ways of cutting sodium in their products," he said. "So yes, I think they are positioning for very slow progress and that's exactly what I'm afraid of."
Concern is also mounting about the federal government's commitment to the plan, which would require significant money, time and energy over many years.
Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq did not attend the meeting where the report was released. Although the Conservative government created the working group in 2007, it has said very little on the subject since, causing some to question whether it's a real priority.
"They knew this report was coming. Where is their commitment?" asked Norm Campbell, who holds the Canadian chair in hypertension prevention and control and is a member of the working group. "I think here the politicians really have to show a leadership role for Canadians by standing up and making their commitments."
Ms. Aglukkaq said in a statement that excessive sodium consumption is an important public-health issue and that the federal government will work with provinces in coming months to determine the next course of action. Her spokesman, Tim Vail, said it was not the minister's place to attend a news conference being held by a governmental advisory group, but that the issue is considered a priority and will be addressed by the government in coming months.
Several major restaurant chains and food manufacturers have already made commitments to sodium reduction.
Campbell Company of Canada, long seen as a leader, said Thursday many of its products already meet or exceed the proposed targets. It also plans to cut sodium by 25 per cent in 24 varieties of soup, on top of previous sodium cuts.
Burger King, Boston Pizza, McDonald's and other companies have also announced lower sodium in some menu items. But even with the cuts, many of products are still considered to be excessively high in sodium, such as the McDonald's grilled chicken classic sandwich, which moves from 1,010 milligrams of sodium down to 810 milligrams - one-third of the total daily recommended limit.
It's a reality that illustrates why the sodium reduction plan is so critical - and why failure could be disastrous to the health of Canadians, Dr. Campbell said.
"It's critical Canadians not allow this report to collect dust," he said. "We're at the very beginning of what's going to be a tough process."