Coalition’s voluntary salt limits have been ‘public health disaster’

Nearly 10,000 cases of heart disease and stroke and 1,500 cases of cancer could have been avoided in England if the coalition government had not switched to a voluntary deal with the food industry to cut salt in food, say researchers.

The Responsibility Deal was introduced in 2011 by Andrew Lansley, then health secretary. The deal asked food and drink manufacturers and supermarkets to volunteer their own pledges to make their popular products healthier, such as by reducing salt and sugar content.

Until that time, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) had pushed companies hard to meet specific targets on salt reduction. A paper in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health says that under the FSA, from 2003 to 2010, daily salt intake levels fell by 0.2g each year for men and by 0.12g for women – from an average of 10.5g for men and 8g for women per day in England.

But between 2011 and 2014, annual reductions in daily dietary salt intake slowed to 0.11g for men and to 0.07g for women.

The authors, from Imperial College London, estimate that the slowdown may have led to about 9,900 extra cases of heart disease and stroke, plus 710 associated deaths, between 2011 and 2018. It could also have been responsible for 1,500 additional cases of stomach cancer and 610 associated deaths.

If this continued, the researchers said, there would be an estimated 26,000 extra cases of heart disease or stroke and 3,800 additional stomach cancer cases by 2025, affecting the least affluent people in society the most, and adding up to more than £1bn in healthcare and lost productivity costs.