B rating for food manufacturers on efforts to make food healthier

Australia’s food manufacturers got a B for salt reduction today.

The first objective evaluation of the Food and Health Dialogue, the Australian Government’s flagship initiative to improve the healthiness of the country’s food supply, showed mixed results.

The evaluation found that salt levels in breads and breakfast cereals were down. But progress towards the target agreed between industry and government for processed meats was poor.

Poor diet now kills more people in Australia than any other cause.Large quantities of salt added to foods by manufacturers are a leading cause of hypertension, strokes and heart attacks.

The Australian Food and Health Dialogue was set up in 2009, with food manufacturers committing to cut sodium levels in bread, breakfast cereals and processed meats by December 2013. Every year, The George Institute for Global Health has been tracking salt levels in more than 15,000 products on the supermarket shelves to document whether the targets are being met.

Study leader Professor Bruce Neal, of The George Institute for Global Health and The University of Sydney, said: “A number of bakers have made great progress towards meeting the salt targets they agreed with government. Coles and Woolworths, for example, got all their breads down to the target. Goodman Fielder isn’t quite there yet but it made really significant improvements, from 30 per cent rising to 65 per cent now at target.”

Bread is the main source of salt for most Australians, and the overall proportion of breads at the 400mg/100g target rose from 42 per cent to 67 per cent.

Likewise, average salt levels in breakfast cereals fell from 316mg/100g to 237mg/100g.

“Kellogg’s have made significant improvements but there are still some pretty salty products out there because this was a soft target,” said Professor Neal. “The breakfast cereal industry was pretty clever about what it agreed to, and government should have taken a firmer stand. But it’s certainly progress.”

The story was mixed for processed meats. The proportion of products meeting the target rose from 28 per cent to 47 per cent but many products remain very salty. “Modest progress was made by most companies in this challenging category but it was disappointing to find the largest processed meat manufacturer, Primo Smallgoods, appeared to have gone back on their commitment,” said Helen Trevena a co-author of the study. “It’s unclear why, but as far as we can tell the proportion of products meeting target was less in 2013 than it was in 2010.”

Professor Neal congratulated the government on the Food and Health Dialogue but highlighted the need for strengthening of the initiative. “These results show that if government pushes industry will act. But we need stronger government engagement – more food categories covered and a long-term strategy with more ambitious targets setting.”

Australia recently agreed to World Health Organization recommendations to cut salt levels by 30 per cent and removing salt from processed and restaurant foods will be essential for this target to be met.

The Foodswitch Stars website, which allows manufacturers and consumers to calculate the healthiness of their food, was launched to coincide with the publication of the paper in the journal Nutrients.