The federal government has dismantled its sodium reduction task force and is handing responsibility over to a group with heavy ties to the food industry, a move many medical and consumer experts fear jeopardizes efforts to curb Canada's excessive sodium consumption.
The government is also proposing new sodium reduction targets for food that experts say are not tough enough and give too much leeway to manufacturers.
The developments have taken many key players in the initiative by surprise and are raising doubts about the government's commitment to cutting the population's salt consumption.
"It's certainly a cause for concern because there's lots of work still to be done," said Kevin Willis, director of partnerships at the Canadian Stroke Network and a member of the former Sodium Working Group. "My major overall fear is that we will make slow progress on reducing the sodium in the food supply."
The working group was created by the government in 2007 to develop a comprehensive strategy to slash the country's dangerously high sodium intake, a key risk factor for high blood pressure and subsequent heart problems or stroke. The average Canadian consumes 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day, and nearly 80 per cent comes from processed foods such as soups, sauces, bread and salad dressings.
The group released a report last summer that called for a voluntary program to reduce sodium consumption to 2,300 milligrams a person by 2016. The goal hinges on the ability of the food industry to lower the amount of sodium in its products. The working group had planned to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the voluntary program by 2016, and, if necessary, call on the government to create binding regulations.
But Dr. Willis said he and others in the working group were told during a conference call in December their responsibilities would be handed to a group called the Food Regulatory Advisory Committee.
Members of the former working group say that they had expected to be involved in national sodium reduction efforts for years to come and that Health Canada has not told them why responsibility is being transferred.
"I'm pretty upset by [the disbandment]" said Norm Campbell, a pre-eminent sodium expert who was a member of the working group and holds the Canadian Research Chair in hypertension prevention and control.
Health Canada spokeswoman Leslie Meerburg said in a statement the department is moving to the next phase of the sodium reduction strategy and "will continue to consult" former members of the working group when necessary.
Many members of the new Food Regulatory Advisory Committee are involved in the food industry, or have little or no experience in matters related to sodium or high blood pressure.
For instance, chair Paul Paquin, a professor at Laval University, is also vice-president of the Canadian arm of the International Dairy Federation, which represents the dairy industry. Associate chair Keith Mussar heads the food committee of the Canadian Association of Importers and Exporters and has held management positions with companies such as Kraft-General Foods and Labatt Brewing Co., according to his Health Canada biography.
Bill Jeffery, national co-ordinator of Ottawa's Centre for Science in the Public Interest and former Sodium Working Group member, said Health Canada's moves are "indirect evidence they don't place a high priority" on sodium reduction.
Sodium experts are also criticizing new proposed sodium reduction targets for food. The proposals use a "sales weighted average" approach, which would allow manufacturers to keep higher levels of sodium in some of their products as long as they are reduced in others.
In a consultation document that contains the proposed targets, Health Canada said the approach "provides companies the ability to plan their sodium reduction efforts according to which products are most amenable to reformulation or discontinuation. …"
But Dr. Willis said that rationale means Canadians will continue to be exposed to high-sodium food products that could be detrimental to their health.
"Obviously, I would have liked to have seen more aggressive targets," he said. "We want reduction of sodium in all products across the board."