WHO salt reduction talks
Thursday 1 July 2010
Speech by Tim Smith, Chief Executive, Food Standards Agency at WHO/FSA Salt Reduction Strategies Forum Millennium Gloucester Hotel, London 30 June 2010
Good morning and welcome to London. It’s a real pleasure to be bringing together people from right across the world. It’s an honour to be your host for the next few days, jointly with the World Health Organisation.
As a 30 year veteran of the food industry, it might surprise you to learn it’s been 18 years since I first got involved in salt reduction.
As the supplier of sandwiches to Marks and Spencer, one of the UK’s leading food retailers, we were convinced that we could start a revolution in the salt content of prepared foods. We reformulated the entire range and launched it on an unsuspecting world. Well, we won lots of plaudits but sales fell off a cliff. We went too far too fast – not an auspicious start!
When we at the FSA started the salt reduction programme in the UK, we were one of only two or three countries taking action. Now the European Union as a whole has a framework for action and work is underway in many other places around the world – as we can see with representatives from 33 different countries here today.
Progress on salt reduction is a story that speaks to every country here. We all eat. Our countries all have populations are all at risk from eating too much salt. We all see too many people suffering the consequences with high blood pressure, estimated to cause over seven million largely preventable deaths worldwide every year.
In the UK, the salt story started with a report by our independent expert group, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition.
In 2003 it published a report on salt and health. The report said the evidence about high salt intake and high blood pressure was convincing – clearer than ever before.
It said lowering the average salt intake of the population would lower blood pressure levels and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. It effectively said, 'If we can reduce the amount of salt people eat we will save lives – and save public money.' Later the same year, the UK Food Standards Agency and the UK Department of Health made a commitment. We committed to reduce salt intakes to the levels recommended by the independent scientific advisory committee.
Based on the weight of available evidence, the recommendations were to reduce salt levels from the population average intake of 9.5g down to 6g a day – lower for children.
At this point we started to do a lot of thinking about how we were going to persuade a lot of people to eat a lot less salt. How were we going to persuade people who were increasing the amount of salt they eat to start decreasing the amount of salt they eat? To cut their salt intake by over a third.
When most people had no idea that salt could be bad for them – or how much salt was too much – how were we going to help them cut down?
If people were doing less cooking for themselves and eating more foods prepared by others – how could we help them chose to eat less salt?
Three-quarters of the salt we eat in the UK comes from processed foods purchased in supermarkets and from meals prepared by others in canteens, restaurants and take-away food outlets.
So we talked to people. We talked to everybody with an interest – consumers, the food industry, the medical profession.
We agreed this was a long term project and developed a long term strategy that almost everyone could support and play a part in. A strategy of small steps for many participants.
Every food business in the country using salt in their manufacturing.
Every catering business using salt in its recipes.
Every consumer and non-governmental organisation willing to help spread the message about salt and health to their members and their communities.
By bringing the food industry together, by agreeing collective and realistic targets for reducing salt in a very wide range of foods, we have turned the tide on the levels of salt in food.
By agreeing clear and simple messages about the risks of eating too much salt, about why you should eat less, and about how to eat less, the public are moving quietly almost by stealth in the same direction.
Over the course of the past seven years in this country, we have seen the salt content in a very wide range of processed foods come down and we’ve seen public awareness of the risks of too much salt go up.
The result – when we last measured in 2008 – has been a reduction from that 9.5g population average daily intake to 8.6g. Not close enough yet to the 6g ambition, to a cut of over a third in salt intake, but a significant reduction of 10 per cent that is already preventing premature deaths and, probably more importantly, preventing many years lived in ill health.
I see that as a success.
In fact, given the relatively modest cost of the salt campaign compared with other public health campaigns it is one of the most effective diet-related campaigns there has ever been.
That is why I am personally delighted to see so many people from so many different countries here today and here for the technical meeting that starts tomorrow.
The programme we have followed is not a formula unique to the UK – as we can see from the work in countries as different as Canada, Chile, Spain and Singapore.
It’s not a formula that applies only to the most highly developed economies – it can be adapted and balanced so that it fits with the eating habits and levels of knowledge of consumers all round the world.
The salt reduction programme is absolutely not a magic wand or a rigid formula.
My colleagues here in the UK will be looking to learn from progress elsewhere in the world, and we are very keen to share with you what we have learned over the past seven years.
One of the most important things we have learned is the value of partnerships – particularly the contribution that the food industry has made.
UK-based food industry organisations – retailers, manufacturers, trade associations, caterers, suppliers to the catering sector – all have responded magnificently with over 75 companies and organisations now committed to salt reduction across 85 different food groups from breakfast cereals to snack foods to meat products, soups and sauces.
Notice that the Food Standards Agency doesn’t make, sell or distribute food. That is the job of the industry we regulate.
They are committed because we have been prepared to listen and to hear what they say about how much salt, how quickly, they can take out of their products.
We have been prepared promote the actions taken and successes of those leading the way. And where we’ve come across problems, we’ve been prepared to commit resources to find the solutions.
Salt has an important role in preventing microbial growth, toxins and spoilage. So we have worked with UK meat products manufacturers on practical guidance on salt reduction that doesn’t compromise food safety.
Salt seems to stop dough becoming sticky and difficult to work in big plant bakeries. So we are funding research with bakers to understand how to overcome these technical problems.
Co-operation like this will help us go further than the 10 per cent reduction in intakes that we have seen so far.
We also, all of us, need to think much more globally rather than nationally and work across borders.
Lower salt Danish bacon or Irish cheese isn’t just good for Danish consumers or Irish consumers – it’s good for British consumers and French consumers and consumers in any other country that like imported Danish bacon or Irish Cheddar. We can all benefit from reformulation whichever country we live in, and it all helps with adjusting our taste for salt.
This is a gradual, step-by-step process and, as the manufacturers have been voluntarily taking salt out of food in stages, so we’ve been running public information campaigns in the UK in stages.
In our first stage we focussed on informing people of why too much salt is bad for their health.
In Stage 2 we were encouraging consumers to check food labels for information about salt content and raising awareness not to eat more than 6g a day.
In Stage 3 we were encouraging consumers to choose products with lower levels of salt.
By Stage 4, last year, we could be quite sophisticated with a message to consumers to compare food labels and choose foods lower in salt.
The result is that the number of consumers cutting down on salt has gone up by a quarter. The numbers of people checking food labels has doubled and there has been a 10-fold increase in awareness of the 6g a day message.
Reproduced globally – or bettered globally – that change in people’s behaviour will lower blood pressure and save millions of lives. It will help to eliminate one of the risk factors – unhealthy diets – that lead to those seven million deaths a year worldwide.
So the conversations we have today, the things we learn, the partnerships we make can have a hugely significant effect over the next few years. I’m sure I don’t need to remind anyone of that.
So in the 18 years since the UK rejected my recipe for a new lower salt version of the BLT sandwich a lot has happened, most of it quietly, most of it unnoticed by all except the experts.
The WHO’s Action Plan for prevention and control of non-communicable diseases has six clear objectives – to raise the priority accorded to non-communicable disease. To establish and strengthen national policies. To promote interventions and research and partnerships and to evaluate progress at the national, regional and global levels.
We have the opportunity to do all of those things this week and I’d like to thank my colleagues from the FSA, from the Department of Health and from the WHO for arranging this platform.
And I’d like to thank all of you for coming.
Let’s make sure we take full advantage of this opportunity.