Gov won’t act on all sodium recommendations

Government won’t act on all sodium recommendations, despite costly panel
Health Canada won’t commit to implementing all the recommendations of its expert sodium panel after spending nearly $1 million to get the group’s advice on ways to reduce the salt intake of Canadians.

The Sodium Working Group, which disbanded prematurely in December, spent about $950,000 to come up with more than two dozen recommendations to bring down Canada’s dangerously high level of salt consumption, Health Canada has confirmed. The group disbanded long before it could complete its work of tracking how well companies did over five years in reducing the level of salt in processed foods.

Despite the investment, the fate of some of the recommendations directed at the federal government remain up in the air after the panel gave them to Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq last July.

Health Canada says it accepts the group’s overall goal of trying to reduce the salt intake of Canadians from about 3,400 milligrams a day to 2,300 mg by 2016. The department has also tabled voluntary sodium targets for the industry to help reach the goal.

But Health Canada is less definitive when it comes to the group’s specific recommendations for the department.

They include a call for Health Canada to propose new regulations to force food companies to use uniform serving sizes in nutritional facts tables on food packages, so consumers can accurately compare sodium levels in similar foods.

The working group, which included representatives from the food industry and was chaired by a senior executive at Health Canada, also recommended Canada’s food regulations be amended so that food industry calculations of a product’s percentage of recommended daily sodium consumption be based on a benchmark of 1,500 mg of sodium, rather than the current 2,400 mg.

The recommended daily intake level for sodium is 1,500 mg, so it doesn’t make sense for any food company to use the higher threshold to calculate the daily value percentage, the Sodium Working Group concluded. This “promotes undesirably high intakes of sodium from a public health perspective,” a summary of its recommendations said.

In a statement to Postmedia News, Health Canada said it’s committed “to the overall intent” of these recommendations and “to using the most effective mechanisms” to achieve the overall public health objectives of the panel’s recommendations.

Health Canada also said that since the sodium-reduction issue is so complex, regulations “aren’t always the most effective or appropriate tool.”

“The way I read it is they’re rejecting some of them, but they want to be perceived as accepting them,” said Bill Jeffery, national co-ordinator of the Ottawa-based Centre for Science in the Public Interest. “It’s like a fine line. They want to give the impression that they’re supportive of what the experts have advised, but their actions suggest otherwise.”

Jeffery served as one of the members of the Sodium Working Group, whose unfinished business has been transferred to a newly formed food advisory committee at Health Canada with strong ties to the food industry.

Health Canada said the new committee will bring in some former members of the working group when sodium is on the agenda.

“What’s the government doing? They got the group of experts and industry people together and spent three years putting together a strategy. Now they’re trying to find some other people to give them a different strategy? It just doesn’t make any sense,” Jeffery said.

Former health minister Tony Clement convened the sodium group in 2007 to “develop, implement and oversee” a multi-year sodium reduction strategy through 2016.

In its recommendations report, the Sodium Working Group cited research estimating that a decrease in the average sodium intake to about 1,800 mg per day would prevent 23,500 cardiovascular disease events every year, resulting in direct health-care savings of $1.38 billion per year or just under $3 billion if indirect costs are included.

By Sarah Schmidt, Postmedia News
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Read the original article at The Gazette Online.