Salt step back 'due to Government'
The coalition Government is responsible for a "major step backwards in public health nutrition", health experts have claimed.
Reforms under then-health secretary Andrew Lansley "stalled" the progress of a previously successful salt reduction strategy, which could have prevented around 6,000 deaths from stroke and heart attack, analysis published in the BMJ suggests.
Lead author Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London, said food has become the single biggest cause of death and ill health in the UK due to its high levels of salt, fat and sugars.
He wrote that the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA), which was set up in 2000, became a "world leader in improving nutrition, in particular pioneering the reduction in the amount of salt added to food by industry".
A programme which aimed to eventually reduce salt intake to 6g/day among the adult population was set up, which saw it fall 15% from 9.5 g/day in 2003 to 8.1g/day in 2011 and was accompanied by a fall in population blood pressure and mortality from stroke and ischaemic heart disease.
Prof MacGregor said the FSA and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) estimated that salt reduction campaigns have prevented around 9,000 deaths due to stroke and ischaemic heart disease a year and resulted in annual healthcare savings of around £1.5 billion in the UK.
But he said that after Mr Lansley was appointed health secretary in 2010, he moved the responsibility for nutrition from the FSA to the Department of Health, which disrupted the programme and made it unclear who would be responsible for the policy.
In 2011 he also launched the Public Health Responsibility Deal, making the alcohol and food industries responsible for reducing alcohol consumption and improving nutrition.
"As a result, salt reduction lost momentum," Prof MacGregor wrote.
While Mr Lansley wanted to scrap the salt targets for 2012, he was persuaded to keep them by non-governmental organisation Cash (Consensus Action on Salt and Health) but refused to set new targets for 2014, the professor wrote.
He said although the salt targets were reset after Mr Lansley left his role, by this time four years of the programme had been lost.
"If actual salt reduction was zero over this period, the lost 0.9 g/day corresponds to approximately 6,000 deaths from stroke and heart attack that could have been prevented, based on Nice estimations," the professor said.
"Lansley and the coalition Government have been responsible for a major step backwards in public health nutrition.
"It is vital that health professionals, politicians and the food industry are made more aware that the food we eat is currently the single biggest cause of death and ill health in the UK. It is therefore imperative that responsibility for nutrition be handed back to an independent agency, where it is not affected by changes in government, ministers or political lobbying."
Prof MacGregor, who is chairman of Cash, said the UK must continue with its progress in reducing salt content in food, and the model should be adapted for both added sugars and fat, particularly saturated fat.
"This will reduce energy intake and lower the incidence of obesity and type 2 diabetes," he wrote.
"A reduction in saturated fat will lower population cholesterol levels and reduce ischaemic heart disease. Both of these will result in major improvements in public health and major cost savings to the health service."
Sonia Pombo, a nutritionist at Cash and joint author, said: "The responsibility deal is no longer fit for purpose.
"For too long the food industry have been allowed to police themselves, putting the health of our nation at risk... Let's get the UK back on track with salt reduction and retain our status as world leaders."
Labour public health spokeswoman Luciana Berger said: "These latest concerns from health experts add to the growing criticism of the Tory-Lib Dem Government's record on public health.
"Nearly two-thirds of adults and a third of children in England are overweight or obese, affecting the life expectancy of millions and hitting our NHS with a £5 billion bill every year.
"Yet instead of taking the bold action that we desperately need, ministers, with their voluntary Responsibility Deal, have allowed commercial interests to dictate their public health policy.
"The scale of the challenge we are facing is too great to rely solely on a non-binding and piecemeal deal with a select group of companies.
"This is why Labour will stand up to vested interests and take decisive action to give each child a healthier start in life including setting maximum limits on sugar, fat and salt in food that is marketed substantially to children."