Address By Mr. Trevor Sargent T.D, Minister for Food and Horticulture at the Dept of Health and Children at the opening of the FSAI seminar on Salt Reduction: Meeting Targets and Overcoming Barriers

A Chairde, It gives me great pleasure to open this seminar on salt reduction in the food chain. I am particularly pleased to see so many representatives of the food industry in the audience today which demonstrates your commitment to the overall salt reduction programme and shows your interest in the health of your customers.

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland took the initiative in 2004 to lead the way in reducing the salt content of foods on the Irish market. The key focus of this work was to achieve a voluntary, gradual and sustained reduction in the salt content of processed and prepared foods nationally. It is to your credit that over 60 different companies and organisations are taking part in the FSAI salt reduction programme and working together to achieve this goal.

My Department has supported research into overcoming technical barriers to salt reduction in key food categories like bread and ready-meals through the Food Industries Research Measure. We have also supported on-going work on the development of a national food consumption database that allows the monitoring of the food people eat. Food consumption data is vital for identifying foods that are a priority for salt reduction as well as allowing the evaluation of the salt reduction programme by estimating salt intakes.

The FSAI initiative followed a report by its Scientific Committee that evaluated salt intake in Ireland and concluded that Irish people were consuming far in excess of the daily allowance for salt. The report highlighted the fact that excessive salt intake is a major factor in the number of deaths from cardiovascular disease and stroke caused by high blood pressure and hypertension each year in Ireland. Approximately 35% of all deaths in Ireland are from cardiovascular disease and over 50% of the population that are older than 50 years suffer from hypertension. Excessive levels of salt are considered a contributory factor and reducing intake could have a positive influence on public health.

It is against this background that we are meeting today to provide a platform for the exchange of information on salt reduction programmes within the Irish industry and to plot the way forward on initiatives to extend the FSAI salt reduction programme through to 2012. We are likely to get the best results from working in collaboration and partnership to the same overall objective.

We know from the work of the FSAI that the majority of consumers’ salt intake comes from processed food. Bread and processed meats alone contribute about half of people’s salt intake. It is estimated that Irish adults currently consume on average 10 grams of salt per day.

However, the recommended dietary allowance for adults is only 4 grams of salt per day, demonstrating that Irish adults are currently consuming over double what they need. The picture is similar for children who are also exceeding recommended dietary allowances. The FSAI has set a realistic target intake of 6g of salt per day for the Irish population.

It is interesting to note that about 15-20% of total salt intake is from people adding salt during cooking or at the table, so consumers also have a role to play in reducing their daily intake. While some salt consumption is necessary as part of a healthy balanced diet, current levels of consumption of salt are too high. There is evidence that relatively modest reductions in salt intake have the potential to produce a significant fall in average blood pressure, which can have a substantial impact on the level of cardiovascular disease in Ireland.

I am pleased to note that the food industry, particularly IBEC’s Food and Drink Industries Ireland and Retail Ireland, have been pivotal in coordinating the food industry’s commitment to the voluntary reduction of salt in processed foods on the Irish market. Over the last 5 years a significant amount of salt has gradually been taken out of foods by the food industry. In Europe, Ireland is one of the leading countries spearheading the way in salt reduction.

The Irish industry has to be complemented on the progress made to date with salt reduction. It is heartening to note that the bread manufacturers have achieved a 10 % reduction in products over that past four years and that the meat product manufacturers have achieved a reduction of 11% over a similar period.

We now have 11% less salt in breakfast cereals than in 2003 and the salt content of soups and sauces has been reduced by about 10%.

In addition, I have heard from the FSAI that a number of the major retail multiples have made considerable strides in salt reduction in their own brand goods, while the symbol groups have been matching the work undertaken by the multiples and have also committed to reducing salt in deli counter foods. The way forward is to incrementally reduce salt in processed foods as consumers need to be weaned off salt on a gradual basis and to minimise major changes to the taste profiles of foods.

Through these collaborative efforts Ireland is well on the way to achieving a 16% reduction in salt in each of four food categories by 2012 – a commitment that we have given to the European Commission’s High Level Group on Nutrition and Physical Activity.

In 2010 the FSAI salt reduction programme will be at an important juncture. Further salt reduction in processed foods, over and above what has been achieved to date, is becoming increasingly difficult from a technical and consumer acceptance perspective. However, we are unlikely to reach the salt target of 6g per day salt target on the back of work by the food industry alone. It is a shared responsibility and consumers also have to take active control of their salt intake. They need to choose foods that are lower in salt and reduce or remove salt used in cooking and at the table. Consumer choice will ultimately drive the food industry to continue the excellent progress to date.

This seminar today is an opportunity to discuss the way forward to 2012, to inject new energy into our salt reduction efforts and to learn from each others experiences and those that have worked in other countries. I would like to complement everybody in the room today on the real success of your efforts to date and look forward to seeing these continued into the future. I would also like to express my appreciation to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland for the leading the way with the salt reduction initiative and for improving the health of the Irish diet.

Thank you all for participating and I wish your seminar every success.