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Salt industry smells blood in transfer of sodium-reduction file

A salt industry lobby group is hoping Health Canada's decision to disband a sodium task force is a sign the government is dropping its campaign to reduce sodium consumption levels across the country. But Health Canada officials insist sodium reduction remains a major priority of the federal government.

In December, Health Canada informed members of its Sodium Working Group, created in 2007 to develop a national sodium-reduction strategy, that its responsibilities were being transferred to the Food Regulatory Advisory Committee.

The move prompted concern from SWG members and other experts who fear the new committee has too much representation from the food industry and not enough independent experts. They are also concerned sodium will get lost in the shuffle because of the other issues being handled by the new group.

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"I was shocked to hear there's been such a change in plans," said Bruce Van Vliet, a professor of cardiovascular and renal physiology at Memorial University who studies the relationship between sodium and high blood pressure. "Everyone was caught off guard."

Morton Satin, vice-president of science and research at the Virginia-based Salt Institute, a lobby group, said he feels Health Canada's decision could represent the start of a wider backlash against sodium-reduction efforts.

"I'm hoping that it does [mean there's a backlash]" Mr. Satin said. "People who eat salt live longer. End of story."

The sentiments of the Salt Institute help illustrate how contentious the sodium debate is, and explains why advocates of reduction are fearful the federal government won't follow through on what they describe as an urgent public health issue.

The average Canadian consumes about 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day, more than double the recommended amount for adults, 1,500 milligrams. Leading medical experts agree that these high levelscontribute to the development of high blood pressure over time, which can lead to heart attack, stroke and other health problems. Nearly 80 per cent of the sodium Canadians eat comes from packaged or processed foods such as pasta sauces, soups, salad dressings, bread and cereal.

As a result, any hope of reducing sodium levels across a population rests heavily on the ability and willingness of the food industry to cut the amount of sodium added to its products. The current goal adopted by the government is to reduce the average Canadian's sodium levels to 2,300 milligrams by 2016. Most members of the food industry in Canada have pledged to cut sodium levels in their products, although they are still negotiating reduction targets with government officials.

The Salt Institute's continuing campaign against salt reduction is a sign the battle is far from over.

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Though respected medical experts, as well as the World Health Organization and the Institute of Medicine, have declared sodium reduction a crucial public health issue that could save thousands of lives and billions in health-care costs, the Salt Institute says reducing sodium could be detrimental to health, in part by pushing people to consume more food.

"Low-fat foods spawned the obesity epidemic," Mr. Satin said. "How do you think people will regard low-salt foods when there's avidity for taste?"

But medical experts say the evidence is clear: Current sodium consumption levels contribute to the development of high blood pressure and other health problems. And while there is concern over the dismantling of the SWG, they are optimistic the government remains committed to the issue.

Many take heart from the fact that Prime Minister Stephen Harper singled out sodium-reduction goals in his New Year's Day message as one of the government's key achievements of 2010.

"If sodium is even on his mind, it makes me confident and feel positive we've had some sort of impact," said Sheldon Tobe, chairman of the Canadian Hypertension Education Program and a nephrologist at Toronto's Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

Health Canada spokesman St├ęphane Shank said in an e-mail that the SWG was dissolved because the government is moving to the next phase, under which federal, provincial and territorial governments will "take a leadership role and continue to work closely" with the food industry, health professionals and other organizations.

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FRAC, the new group handling the sodium-reduction file, was formed by Health Canada last year.

There are fears that it includes too many representatives from the food industry and few independent experts who study sodium and its effects on the body.

Mr. Shank said Health Canada has plans to recruit additional experts to sit on an extension of the FRAC committee. Health Canada will also consult former SWG members as reduction strategies are rolled out, he said.





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