Salt sellers shaken by the new regulations

By 2019, the amount of salt in your bread will have been decreased by 30%, the salt in a vienna sausage will be down by 13%, and by 12% in a packet of potato crisps – SA’s new salt regulations were signed into law on March 18 by Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi. The public health lobby is thrilled, the food industry is not.

The law requires that bread, butter, breakfast cereals, potato crisps, ready-to-eat snacks, processed meat, sausages, soup powder, gravy powder, two-minute noodles, stock cubes and jelly all be lighter on the salt by 2019.

The new restrictions would require a loaf of bread, which currently contains 4.8% sodium, to contain about 4% by 2016 and be down to 3.8% by 2019.

The legislation is part of a bid by the health department to ward off diseases linked to a high salt intake, such as high blood pressure, strokes, heart attacks and vascular dementia.

And the move by the department is statistically justified: according to the South African Medical Research Council, strokes are the third leading cause of death in South Africa, and hypertensive diseases are the seventh.

In 2000 alone, almost 34 000 people died from strokes and almost 17 000 died from hypertensive disease. According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, about 130 South Africans suffer heart attacks and about 240 have strokes every day.

Reaction for an against

The Consumer Goods Council of South Africa said it was “shocked and disappointed” that the law had been passed. Its biggest concern was about the cost of finding salt substitutes for the affected food products. “Any formulation changes to foodstuffs impact the costs to the system,” Ronel Burger, head of the food safety initiative at the council, told the Mail & Guardian.

Manufacturers would be forced to find suitable “substitute ingredients” for this alpha-element that boosts flavour, preserves shelf life and is almost as cheap as water.

Pioneer Foods, which operates 17 large-scale bakeries around the country, said the current lack of salt substitutes made the targets unrealistic. Lulu Khumalo, executive of corporate affairs and sustainability at the company, told the M&G: “We fully support the drive to reduce the nondiscretionary daily intake of salt in the diet, through the setting of national targets for specific food ­categories that are implemented incrementally over a realistic period of time.”

However, she said, the company was “currently not aware of commercially acceptable technical solutions — both locally and abroad — that have been successful. We therefore cannot support this very low sodium level.”

But Professor Melvyn Freeman, head of noncommunicable diseases at the health department, said the department discouraged the use of substitutes. Instead, it advocated weaning consumers off using too much salt over time.

“We are trying to say to them: ‘No, don’t use salt replacers unless it’s absolutely necessary, because that will keep them used to the salty taste. Rather help to change the palate of the consumers’.”

Manufacturers should decrease the salt in their food by increments, he said. “If you use a slow reduction process, you can get them used to less salt in their food over time.”

This weaning process, he said, needed only 14 days, rather than the six years the department was allowing. “We are doing this over a very extensive period — until 2019. People have a long time to change their manufacturing processes,” he said. “If they’re clever, manufacturers will use that time to reduce the content slowly rather than in two batches [in 2016 and 2019 when the requirements take effect].”

But whether salt is reduced or substituted, the change will affect companies’ bottom lines, said Burger. It would require shelf life and stability tests, consumer testing and a change of packaging — which could cause higher food prices.

Less salt could mean shorter shelf lives as well, increasing distribution costs.

And although Freeman said that companies could initially decrease the salt in their foods by up to 15% with no impact on taste, he acknowledged that there would be a definite manufacturing cost to so drastically decreasing salt content by 2019.

Nevertheless, the cost to business would be outweighed by the lessened strain on the healthcare system, he said. “We can save about 7 500 lives a year,” he said. “Now can you imagine what the expense is in hospitals trying to save the lives of those 7 500 people?”

A combined report by the Medical Research Council and the Wits Rural Public Health Unit pitches the saved cost at R300-million a year if the population decreased its salt intake by a mere 0.85 grams a day.

This only includes hospital fees for nonfatal strokes. It does not take into account the fees of those who die from diseases linked to a high intake of salt and the savings that would be made from less absenteeism as a result of a healthier populace.

“People with lower salt intake will also live longer, and therefore consume more [food] over the course of their lives,” said Freeman. “So manufacturers can actually make more money that way. For us it’s a bit of a no-brainer.”

And yet other countries have not come to the same “obvious” solutions. South Africa appears be the first country to regulate salt addition at a manufacturing level.

Freeman said big businesses opted for this solution during initial engagement sessions as a way “to level the playing field” between large and small companies.

Countries such as Australia and the United Kingdom have opted for self-regulation in the food industry, with limited success.

“The suggested sodium reduction requirements will push food manufacturers into largely uncharted territory,” said Khumalo of Pioneer Foods. “We recommend that sodium reduction be regarded as an exploratory process.”…..

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