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On sodium, Ontario MDs pick up where the feds left off Add to ...

If the federal government isn’t prepared to tackle sodium reduction, the Ontario Medical Association is ready to take up the cause.

The group, which represents doctors across the province, is hosting a two-day salt summit in Toronto that starts Thursday and brings together some of the key players involved in sodium-reduction efforts in Canada.

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The purpose is to drive change through public education and working with the food industry to implement lower sodium levels in processed and packaged foods. While the organization doesn’t have the power to legislate action or create regulations for the food industry, OMA president Stewart Kennedy says they and other medical professionals have the ability to take up the mantle of health promotion and co-operation with the food industry to achieve their goals.

“This should not wait any longer,” Dr. Kennedy said in an interview. “We need to take aggressive action on salt.”

The amount of sodium Canadians consume has long been contentious. The average person consumes more than double the recommended daily amount of 1,500 milligrams, which is also above the maximum threshold of 2,300 milligrams, over which the risk of health problems starts to rise. About 80 per cent of the sodium Canadians eat comes from packaged and processed foods, such as bread, sauces, soups and deli meats. High sodium intake is a serious concern because it is linked to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, kidney problems and other health conditions.

The federal government assembled a panel to look at strategies to address this brewing public health issue. But after three years and a comprehensive report with recommendations for change, including placing maximum sodium targets on foods sold in Canada, the federal government disbanded the group.

Officials in the office of federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq have said repeatedly they are still committed to finding ways to lower the dangerous amounts of salt Canadians eat. Rather than mandating maximum sodium targets for food, Ms. Aglukkaq’s office has indicated interest in ensuring lower-sodium options are available on the market.

The food industry has made some strides in recent years to bulk up lower-sodium options for consumers. The Campbell Company of Canada has been visible in this regard, with high-profile commercials and other marketing efforts promoting their move to slash salt in a range of soups. In fact, lower-sodium versions of tomato sauce, salad dressings and snack foods have become increasingly common in Canadian grocery stores.

But high-sodium food products continue to be the norm, contributing to excessive rates of sodium intake across the country.

To many health professionals, the current approach isn’t good enough. Provincial health ministers have stated they want to pursue a rigorous sodium-reduction plan and public health experts are pushing for action.

The Ontario Medical Association has also been vocal about the need to slash salt intake.

The two-day summit will feature discussions about areas that could be targeted for change and how to achieve results. Participants will also work to create recommendations on ways to implement the report from the federal government’s sodium working group.

Dr. Kennedy said the key to change is convincing the food industry to cut sodium in their products across the board.

“I’m a true believer that true leadership in these organizations is the way we can effect change,” he said.

But if that doesn’t happen, the OMA is prepared to launch a more aggressive campaign, which could include lobbying the government to create regulations that would require food companies to lower salt in their products.

“Certainly, from my perspective, the government is concerned about patients’ health. They’re concerned about chronic disease management,” Dr. Kennedy said. “It’s the next step to put some words into action.”

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