The good, the bad and the salty: has the food industry done enough to meet salt targets?

Retailers, manufacturers and the out-of-home sector have all come under fire after PHE released its first salt reduction report today.

19 December 2018

It’s results day for the food industry with Public Health England (PHE) publishing a report this morning detailing the progress made towards meeting the government’s salt reduction targets.

Starting in 2014, the in-home sector (retailers and manufacturers) and the out-of-home sector (including restaurants, pubs and cafes) were charged with meeting new average and maximum targets for salt content per 100g for 28 different food categories – including bread, crisps and ready meals.

The foods covered by the scheme provide more than half the salt in the nation’s diet, with the PHE’s report covering the actions taken from 2014 to 2017.

The findings, which are based on commercial data, are the first since the programme was started. And the results are mixed to say the least, or, to quote PHE: “performance of individual food categories varied considerably.”

Hold the salt?

The analysis shows that retailers and manufacturers met just 52% of the new salt targets for products consumed at home, with retailers (73%) making more progress than manufacturers (37%).

Average salt targets were met in nine food categories across the pair with the likes of breakfast cereals, fat spreads, baked beans, stocks and gravies, pizzas, pasta, quiche, processed potato products, cakes, pastries, fruit pies and other pastry-based desserts all meeting the average targets.

Ready meals, soups, biscuits, rice and other cereals, however, failed to meet any of the average targets. The same was true for meat products, with 43% of the processed items found to contain more than the maximum salt levels.

But meat alternatives fared no better: veggie burgers and sausages comprehensively fell short, confirming findings by Action on Salt in October that revealed some of the worst offenders were saltier than Atlantic seawater.

Overall, four-in-five foods (81%) provided by retailers and manufacturers had salt levels below or at the maximum levels, though that was enough for Action on Salt to proclaim the PHE findings as a “national tragedy.”

In terms of the out-of-home sector, PHE have said that 71% did not exceed the maximum levels, but that products were found to be generally higher in salt content when compared to in-home.

The out-of-home sector was set ‘per serving' targets in 11 food categories, including sandwiches and children’s meals.

The fallout

Public Health Minister Steve Brine said, rather positively: “While it is encouraging to see the food industry is making progress towards the salt reduction targets we set in 2014, we know there is more to do. That’s why we committed to further reducing salt intake in our prevention vision. Next year we will put forward realistic but ambitious goals and set out details of how we will meet them.”

Indeed, a PHE spokesman said that progress towards reducing salt levels in particular food stuffs, such as bread and baked beans, had gone “really, really well.”

Dr Alison Tedstone, PHE chief nutritionist, took a slightly more critical tone: “While we have seen some progress, those that have taken little or no action cannot be excused for their inactivity. It is clear that, with the right leadership from industry, further salt reduction in foods continues to be possible.”

It’s been a tricky year for the food industry and PHE in terms of meeting new health targets. Today’s salt report follows on from a failure earlier this year to successfully implement a 5% cut in sugar.

The sugar report, which was released in the summer, showed that only a 2% overall cut had been implemented. But, as with the salt report, some sectors had achieved more than others.

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