Speaking to FoodManufacture.co.uk following a speech by Food Standards Agency (FSA) boss Tim Smith at a salt reduction forum in London, CASH chairman Professor Graham MacGregor said that the evidence presented by industry to challenge the FSA’s 2012 salt targets was “extremely poor”.
He added: “There are no technical problems in meeting the  targets. I just don’t accept what the industry says when it talks about how essential salt is as a preservative, for example. There are lots of other things that can perform a similar function.”
He added: “I was told by the Federation of Bakers back in 1990 that it was impossible to make further reductions in plant bread for technical reasons, but when they were put under pressure, they did it.
Historically we have always been told that there are insuperable obstacles to salt reduction and then they go and manage to make these reductions after all.
"We’ve been lied to again and again about this by the industry, and to be honest, I don't believe them anymore."
Big discrepancies in salt levels between similar products
CASH surveys also highlighted big discrepancies in salt content between equivalent products at different retailers and manufacturers, he added. For example, a 15g serving of Tesco Genuine American Mustard contained 0.6g of salt, whereas the same amount of Asda's Squeezy American Mustard contained just 0.36g of salt.
"The fact that some manufacturers can keep the salt content right down in these foods highlights how unnecessary it is for the rest to have such a high salt content," said MacGregor.
"Look at the range of salt concentrations in bacon. Why can't the products with the highest levels get down to those with the lowest levels?"
MacGregor, who is Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at St. George's, University of London, accepted that it was easier to reduce salt in more premium products, where product developers could compensate for the loss of flavour or functionality by using more expensive ingredients (premium soups) or different processing methods (artisan breads), but said lives were at stake.
"The bottom line is that it doesn’t make sense for the industry to produce unhealthy food; people will just die earlier, and dead people don’t eat.
"For every 1g reduction in salt intake, more than 12,000 strokes and heart attack events will be prevented. Surely this is worth it."
FSA must keep its foot on pedal
The FSA meanwhile, had to keep the pressure on the industry to reformulate, particularly in the catering sector, he said.
"The FSA probably should have been much stricter with the catering sector, and I can see why some food manufacturers feel it’s unfair if they have cut salt in a pizza by half when the people supplying takeaway pizza haven’t reduced it at all.
"But it’s very challenging because there are 1,000s of individual catering outlets out there, and while the big firms such as McDonald’s are scrutinised very carefully it’s harder to reach the smaller outlets."
He also stuck by an assertion in new guidance from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) that firms making progressive reductions in salt could simply carry on indefinitely, provided they took gradual steps.
"This salt perception issue, that there comes a point where you can’t reduce salt further without putting people off, is just not true. Your taste buds simply adjust."
Technical and sensory hurdles
While this was true up to a point, manufacturers contacted by FoodManufacture.co.uk this month following the publication of the NICE guidance said they had quickly learned that they would eventually reach a cut-off point after which consumers did notice a real difference.
Food and Drink Federation (FDF) director of food safety and science Barbara Gallani said technical issues were also not to be underestimated: “Technical challenges are not just presented by consumer acceptance of taste.
"There are more substantial functions that salt provides in food manufacturing, for example, providing food structure and texture. As the FSA's consultation has shown, there were some quick wins at the very beginning of the process, but continuing salt reductions have become more challenging, meaning an inevitable slowing in pace."
"Microbiological safety of food can also be compromised if recipes are changed in a way that increases the water activity of foods."