Progress on cutting salt is slowing… but 2013 looks like a big year

This could be the year the fragile alliance on health policy between government and industry stretches to breaking point.

This month alone will see the deadline for responses to a government probe on minimum alcohol pricing the official response to the consultation over traffic light front-of-pack labelling and a call from Westminster for new commitments to slash calories.

But the first big battleground will focus on what some health groups regard as the biggest killer of all: salt.

The Grocer understands the Department of Health is preparing to launch a new wave in its salt reduction strategy within the next few weeks, in a bid to ramp up the voluntary reformulation commitments from retailers and suppliers under the Responsibility Deal.

But talks on a new pledge - or series of pledges - which began in the weeks running up to Christmas, have failed to reach an agreement on a way forward.

The DH is under huge pressure from the health lobby to set tough new targets for 2012-2014, but the industry claims there is limited scope for further improvements without huge advances in technology, pointing to barriers across foods including meat, bread, cheese and cakes.

reduction in average salt intake required to hit 6g per day target 

decline in UK salt consumption since 2001 

proportion of supermarket ready meals meeting WHO salt targets

The DH has not yet released up-to-date figures for the end of the year, but a report published in July suggested that less than 60% of the hoped for 19 million kg reduction in salt in the 2010-12 targets have been achieved, despite the UK’s salt reduction actions having cut salt levels by up to 50% in some categories.

Negotiations are understood to be focusing on a potential two-tier approach which, rather than introducing sweeping targets across all categories, would see new targets focused on about 20 of the product areas where retailers and suppliers have made most the progress, including bread, sandwiches and sweet biscuits.

Meanwhile the DH is understood to be “listening” to calls for more time from companies that have missed many of their 2012 targets, including Mondelez International, United Biscuits and General Mills.

“We don’t say all further advances are impossible but it’s likely that they will be much smaller and may be on individual products rather than entire ranges,” says a spokesman for the FDF, which is spearheading the suppliers’ side in the talks.

A key part of the forthcoming announcement looks set to be plans for a wave of new research to explore potential scientific breakthroughs

“We may not have made as much progress as we would have liked and there is a general feeling among NGOs and the government that more work has to be done,” says a retail source involved in the task. But he adds: “Crucially there are signs the government is prepared to listen to our argument.”

Yet according to Professor Graham MacGregor, founder of the influential Consensus Action of Salt and Health group (CASH), this is “shenanigans”.

“The argument that the food industry has done all it can is just rubbish,” he claims.

“There are some areas where there are technical problems and we recognise that,” he says. “But at the end of the day if M&S can produce bacon that is significantly within 2012 limits then why can’t the rest?”

For the DH, the moves on salt come at a hugely sensitive time, as it tries to bring in a universal system of front-of-pack labelling, based on a hybrid of colour-coded traffic lights and GDAs. As well as meeting fierce resistance from suppliers, it is even being challenged by influential German MEP Renate Sommer.

In the meantime, while the DH has won the support of supermarkets, a BMJ report last month found more than one in 10 own-label ready meals would get a red light for salt, with a further 60% receiving an amber.