A failed salt reduction strategy agreed between the Government and industry has led to thousands of extra cases of heart disease, stroke and stomach cancer, experts say.
In a damning study, researchers said the voluntary pact introduced in 2011 – known as the Public Health Responsibility Deal – led to people unnecessarily developing stomach cancer and cardiovascular disease, with hundreds dying as a result.
And they warned that unless urgent action is taken, then by 2025 more than 40,000 extra cases of disease and cancer may have occurred, with almost 9,000 deaths.
The team, from Imperial College London, Liverpool University and the University of Stirling, analysed the impact of the responsibility deal introduced in 2011 and the action taken before this period by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to reduce the salt content of food.
They found the deal led to a slowdown in the reduction of salt in people’s diets, which they estimate has led to an extra 9,900 cases of heart disease and stroke between 2011 and 2018, with an extra 710 deaths from these diseases.
Furthermore, an extra 1,500 cases of stomach cancer are thought to have occurred over the same period, with an extra 610 deaths from this cancer.
The team warned that if nothing changes from now until 2025, an estimated 35,000 extra cases of heart disease and stroke will have occurred since 2011, with an extra 6,400 deaths.
An extra 5,300 cases of stomach cancer may also have been diagnosed since 2011, with an extra 2,500 deaths from the disease.
In previous work, the FSA had voluntary agreements with industry to reformulate processed foods.
But crucially, according to the researchers, the FSA set targets with the threat of statutory imposition if these were not met.
One of the study authors, Professor Simon Capewell, from the University of Liverpool, said: “The policy messages from this dietary salt reduction analysis could not be clearer.
“The UK Government has a stark choice – either continue its laissez-faire approach which will kill or maim thousands more people, or reactivate the successful FSA approach which would prevent thousands of deaths, and powerfully assist the NHS and UK economy.”
Writing in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, the researchers said that in 2000/01, average daily dietary salt intake was 10.5g for men and 8g for women in England.
Between 2003 and 2010, this intake fell by 0.2g among men and by 0.12 g among women.
But between 2011 and 2014, annual reductions in dietary salt intake slowed to 0.11g among men and to 0.07g among women, they said.
In conclusion, the researchers said that people living in the most deprived parts of the country were most likely to be negatively affected by the change.
The study follows a Government-funded study in 2015 which found the deal had had little positive impact on people’s health.
Tim Rycroft, chief operating officer of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), speaking for industry, said: “FDF members have led the way in voluntarily reducing salt in food.
“Compared to four years ago, FDF member products contribute 14% less salt to the average shopping basket, continuing to build on two decades of steady reformulation work following successive voluntary targets.”
Tracy Parker, from the British Heart Foundation said the study was based on mathematical modelling but said people were still consuming well above the recommended maximum of 6g of salt per day.
Graham MacGregor, chairman for Action on Salt, said: “It is now up to the Health Minister, Public Health England and the Government to set up a coherent strategy where the food industry is instructed what to do, rather than the food industry telling the Government what to do, which currently seems to be the case.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “Voluntary action has seen an 11% reduction over the last decade and we continue to work with industry to drive further progress.”