The UK Salt Reduction Initiative Backfires

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Salt reduction news3 minute read 

In 2011, and in a bid to control the high salt and sugar content in food, the government of the United Kingdom made a voluntary pact with the country’s food industry that allowed the latter to privately solve the situation.

It was termed the Public Health Responsibility Deal and required actors within the food industry to voluntarily make public pledges that they would lower the salt and sugar content in their food products.

Seven years later, a new paper has found that unlike the initial goal, dietary salt intake all over the UK has increased significantly instead and consecutively led to nearly 10,000 new heat disease patients.

The Study Findings

According to the 2019 study, titled Quantifying the impact of the Public Health Responsibility Deal on salt intake, cardiovascular disease and gastric cancer burdens and now published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, all existing salt reduction efforts at the population level before the deal was signed started to slow down so much after the deal was created.

In other words, dietary salt intake started to increase, whether in meals or processed products. The report showed that the deal hit low-income and deprived populations or regions more than other regions of the country.

The study also estimated that the deal resulted in more than 1500 cases of stomach cancer and 9900 cases of stroke or heart disease between 2011 and 2018 alone. Additionally, according to the study, the deal might have resulted in over 610 stomach cancer deaths and 710 deaths from stroke/heart disease.

All that sickness affected worker productivity, and the report estimates that the country lost more than £1bn in productivity and healthcare-related costs during that time period alone. According to the researchers, there will be 26, 000 more cases of stomach cancer and 3800 more cases of heart disease/stroke by 2025 if the deal is not stopped or repealed.

The study team, made up of 12 researchers from Imperial College London, concluded that the Public Health Responsibility Deal had in fact, failed at its task and consequently made a few recommendations.

The main recommendation was that PPPs like this Deal should be set with independent targets in mind and they should be constantly monitored to ensure effectiveness. For compliance, the team recommended that tough sanctions and incentives were necessary for getting companies to comply.

How Voluntary Salt Reduction Goals Caused Harm

Dietary salt remains one of the biggest risk factors for stomach cancers and cardio ailments such as heart disease. In trying to create a deal with the private sector, the UK government had the best intentions. 

It had scored a success with a similar deal, this time with food industry heads to voluntarily create new formulas for processed food that used less salt and to change existing labeling on some packaging. But as it appears, voluntary salt reduction caused more harm than good.

The deal made its first error by not setting achievement targets as had previously been done in the previous salt reduction Deal that was masterminded by the Food Standards Agency. Only monitoring was made necessary, and even then, some food industry partners were allowed to only offer a narrative update to the steps they were taking, no evidence required.

Additionally, the deal remained limp because it did not set solid repercussions for the food Industry ahead of time in case of failure to achieve goals. As a result, there was never any need to rush even though the program was supposedly being overseen by a specially selected committee.

By its voluntary nature, the deal was always primed to fail. The study might not show it, but the ever-slowing dietary salt intake levels might have been influenced by certain players within the food industry that chose not to take part in the program and therefore went on with questionable salt levels in their products.

Even the deal’s proposed range of pledges was not promising; a few attempts at teaching chefs how to cook with less salt, plus asking the industry to change menus or be transparent about salt content was never going to be impactful because it left too much power in the hands of the private food industry.

In a way, the deal left the health and well-being of Britons in the hands of the private sector, which was always dangerous, analyzed from any angle or perspective. The food industry found itself suddenly without the government over its shoulder, and as always in pursuit of profit and with no threat of fines or legal action to worry about, it embarked on a masked plan to lower salt levels in processed foods as slowly as possible.

Ultimately, it’s safe to say that while the main goal of the Public Health Responsibility Deal was to foster salt reduction, it failed to achieve it. This has dampened all the government’s previous efforts at salt reduction, most of which were previously marked as promising.

The bottom line

One of the successful aspects of this deal was that it showed the hidden inconsistencies that plague such public-private deals, which up until now have been highly regarded in the UK.

In concluding their paper, the researchers remarked that “Public-private partnerships such as the RD which lack robust and independent target setting, monitoring and enforcement, are unlikely to produce optimal health gains.”

In other words, this is also a learning lesson for the UK government about to handle any future public partnerships for optimal results. Every such partnership needs set goals and targets and they should be independently set. 

Additionally, they should be monitored by more than just a panel of ‘respected fellows’ and enforced whenever a few targets are missed. Quantifiable results should also be shown at every results meeting and evidence shown. The government should never leave the private sector to handle any partnership without monitoring because that means leaving consumers in unsteady hands.

As regards future salt reduction initiatives, the UK government needs to craft new methods of handling the problem. Drastic means should also be considered for purposes of perspective.

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