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Experts blast Health Canada’s approach to sodium reduction

Shopping for groceries.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Health experts are lambasting Health Canada's efforts to lower the amount of sodium Canadians consume and the lack of transparency surrounding the process.

The average Canadian consumes far too much sodium and nearly 80 per cent of it comes from salt added to packaged and processed foods. For that reason, Health Canada created a set of voluntary guidelines for food manufacturers that set reduction targets for everything from flavoured tortillas to canned corn. The goal is to reduce the daily sodium consumption to 2,300 milligrams a day by 2016. (Current daily consumption is 3,400 milligrams.)

Food and Consumer Products of Canada (FCPC), an organization that represents food manufacturers, says the industry is working to meet the targets.

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It sounds like a promising start. But experts and advocates who have been closely involved in sodium-reduction negotiations point to two major flaws in the project: There are no plans to report the industry's progress to Canadians and the approach may be confusing to consumers.

"We don't have that data available in a transparent way that we can monitor that these changes are actually occurring," said Kevin Willis, director of partnerships with the Canadian Stroke Network. "Government could require companies to make that information available so it can be verified. It's all part of the transparent monitoring process."

Health Canada says it isn't planning on conducting surveillance of the food supply to see if companies are meeting the targets. In other words, it won't hold companies to the guidelines. Instead, the department will evaluate whether sodium-reduction goals are being met through Statistics Canada's Canadian Community Health Survey, which is not specifically related to sodium, but asks Canadians about their diet, exercise, overall health and other lifestyle habits. Health Canada also said it will use the Canadian Total Diet Study, which tests 210 food items for contaminants.

"The really, really, really big problem is there's no pressure on companies to achieve the targets," said Bill Jeffery, national co-ordinator of the Ottawa-based consumer-advocacy group Centre for Science in the Public Interest. "It's talking out of both sides of your mouth. If you don't want to measure the effectiveness of something, how can you insist that it's going to be effective? It's just hoping for the best."

FCPC says sodium reduction is a challenging undertaking. It can take up to two years to reformulate a single product, said senior vice-president Derek Nighbor. He added that the food industry will discuss progress in the FCPC's health and wellness report, which provides a broad snapshot of trends and changes in the food industry.

Health Canada adopted a "sales weighted" approach that focuses industry's sodium-reduction efforts on the most popular products in each food category. This helps food manufacturers maximize efficiency.

From a consumer's perspective, however, a sales-weighted approach is meaningless, according to Norm Campbell, member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute and a leading expert on high blood pressure. Companies guard sales information closely, so Canadians don't know which products are being targeted for sodium reduction. And unless they are highly knowledgeable about safe recommended levels, Campbell said it will be difficult for consumers to look at a product label and determine whether it has too much salt. He added that this approach also makes it impossible to gauge whether the food industry is actually lowering their sodium in various products.

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A better approach, says Campbell, would be to set maximum sodium levels for particular foodstuffs – a simple, convenient way for consumers to quickly tell whether a product has too much. Instead, Health Canada has chosen to ignore the advice of health experts and instead listen to industry, he said.

"It's a farce," Campbell said. "It's a complete discounting of academia and the health-care sector and getting all their, quote, 'advice' from a highly biased commercial industry."

Nighbor of FCPC said he has heard these criticisms countless times and wants those who question the food industry's commitment to sodium reduction to wait and see.

"Let us work through to 2016, which is only three years away," he said. "We're looking forward to 2016 and looking where we're at."

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