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Canada stalls on sodium reduction guidelines

By Caroline Scott-Thomas, 13-Dec-2011

Related topics: Flavors and colors, Preservatives and acidulants, Regulation, Sodium reduction

Canada continues to stall on sodium reduction guidelines for industry, after a document detailing voluntary targets was conspicuously absent from a two-day healthcare summit with provincial and territorial ministers in Halifax late last month.

The report, entitled Reducing the Sodium Intake of Canadians: Provincial and Territorial Actions Taken and Future Directions, was due to be presented at the summit and was shown to delegates, but was withdrawn after Canada’s health minister Leona Aglukkaq refused to endorse it, according to a Postmedia News report .

According to Health Canada spokesperson Gary Scott Holub: "The federal approach is to work cooperatively with provincial and territorial governments and stakeholders to build on actions already taken to reduce sodium intake. To this end, we support the goal adopted by the Health Ministers in 2010 of lowering the population average sodium intake to 2300 mg/day by 2016."

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) estimates that the average Canadian consumes 3,092mg of sodium each day.

Scott Holub added: "Sodium reduction is most likely to be achieved through a joint voluntary effort where everyone has a role to play: individual Canadians, the food industry, governments and healthcare organizations."

During the Halifax summit, director of communications at the government of Nova Scotia’s department of health and wellness, Sherri Aikenhead, stressed the importance of “a strong federal commitment and meaningful collaboration with provinces and territories” to significantly reduce sodium consumption in Canada.

The day before the report was withdrawn, Aikenhead said that provincial and territorial health and wellness ministers endorsed the report focused on reducing sodium in the food supply, raising awareness and monitoring progress.

A solid strategy for achieving sodium reduction in Canada has been a long time coming.

Leading Canadian health organizations joined forces to set up a Sodium Reduction Working Group in 2007 as a first step toward the development of a long-term national strategy to reduce dietary sodium levels. It issued a sodium reduction strategy in July 2010, nearly three years in the making, which looked to industry to meet voluntary reduction targets with defined timelines, set according to food categories.

SWG quietly disbanded…

But in February this year Health Canada spokesperson David Thomas told FoodNavigator-USA that the Sodium Reduction Working Group had been disbanded as the agency was “transitioning to the next phase of the sodium reduction strategy.”

He said that the government had handed the group’s responsibilities over to the Food Regulatory Advisory Committee (now the Food Expert Advisory Committee), which has a much wider remit and includes some members with ties to the food industry, including chair Paul Paquin, a professor at Laval University, who is also vice president of the Canadian division of the International Dairy Federation.

The Sodium Reduction Working Group’s targets were intended to bring the average Canadian’s daily sodium intake down to 2,300mg by 2016, based on a five percent reduction per year. The strategy also included a mechanism for public commitment by industry to the targets, a plan for monitoring progress by an independent body, and a plan for independent evaluation of the program with an option to take stronger measures if necessary.

“This advisory committee will be consulted as needed on the various aspects of the sodium reduction strategy, including the food supply, education and awareness, research, and monitoring and evaluation, and the supporting elements of the strategy,” Thomas said at the time.

“…The federal government continues to work closely with other sectors and partners who have a role to play in helping Canadians improve their health by reducing their sodium intake.”

It is estimated that Canadians get about 75% of their sodium from processed foods.