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It’s time to reduce our national consumption of salt

By NDP MP Libby Davies      

Canadians consume extremely high levels of sodium, well above other countries. And this is costing us, both in our health and in our pocket book. Over-consumption of sodium is a major issue in Canada, and is the leading cause of cardiovascular disease in Canada.

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What if I told you about a common-sense step that would save thousands of lives each year, reduce the burden on our health-care system, and cost next to nothing to implement? What if this step was already in place in leading industrialized nations?

I am putting forward a private member’s bill that would progressively reduce our national consumption of salt. Canadians consume extremely high levels of sodium, well above other countries. And this is costing us, both in our health and in our pocket book. Over-consumption of sodium is a major issue in Canada, and is the leading cause of cardiovascular disease in Canada.

Canadians currently consume 3,500 mg of sodium per day, which is more than double the recommended intake of 1,500 mg.

We know that reducing our sodium intake by over a third (1,800 mg a day) would prevent up to 23,500 cardiovascular disease events such as heart attacks, congestive heart failures and strokes per year. It would also lead to the prevention of approximately 10,000 to 16,000 deaths annually in Canada. This lower level of sodium intake is now normal in countries that were once heavy consumers of salt, such as Finland. That example shows the change is doable.

If this was just a question of cooking habits, we might not need a national strategy. But this is a public health problem with its roots in the commercial food industry. Statistics Canada estimates that 75 per cent of our sodium comes from heavily salted processed foods, including bread, cereal, prepared meats, cheese, soup and restaurant foods. In comparison, very little salt is naturally occurring in unprocessed foods or added by consumers from salt shakers at the table and stove.

I understand that we cannot do this overnight – which is why this bill is designed to progressively implement lower levels of sodium, so both food companies and consumers have time to adapt. This approach has worked in other countries, and it has paid off.

We could save billions of health care funds that are normally dedicated to treating patients with cardiovascular disease, if we implemented a sodium reduction plan that worked. This would free up health care funds and resources for other much-needed services. Implementing this legislation is a simple and cost-effective way of significantly improving the health of Canadians.

No wonder Canadians are asking the government to act. In 2012 alone, provincial and territorial governments, the Sodium Reduction Advisory Committee member organizations and health organizations all asked the federal government to adopt a mandatory approach.

A recent survey showed that 76 per cent of Canadians want warning labels on high sodium products and a majority of Canadians believe government intervention is necessary to reduce our sodium levels in our foods.

Many food companies have done good work so far to label and reduce sodium, but they need clear timelines and real leadership from government to ensure a level playing field so that the first-movers are not penalized.

My legislation, the Sodium Reduction Strategy for Canada (Bill C-460), would phase in new labeling requirements for prepackaged foods. For foods which exceed Health Canada’s recommended sodium level, food manufacturers would ultimately either need to lower the sodium in their foods or apply a label on the front of the package that indicates the food is high in sodium. Food manufacturers will not have to remove their high sodium products from the market, they just have to progressively reduce the sodium content or ensure consumers know what they are buying.

Unlike the Conservative government, the NDP has taken many concrete actions to protect the health of Canadians. Pat Martin passed a private member’s motion in 2004 to regulate the amount of trans fats in foods, followed by Bill C-303 which would amend the Food and Drugs Act to lower the amount of trans fats allowable per serving. In June 2012, Peter Julian introduced Bill C-430 which seeks to ban advertising of food, drugs, cosmetics and devices for children under the age of 13.

I have consistently questioned Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq about the regulation of processed foods, including why the minister cancelled a plan to lower trans fats in foods and why the minister has not listened to the call to lower sodium in foods.

The Conservative government has taken no definitive action to reduce Canadians’ sodium consumption. While the minister says the government is working towards reducing Canadians’ sodium intake from 3,400 mg to 2,300 mg per day by 2016, there is no evidence to suggest that they are taking actions that will meet this goal by 2016. If they are in fact “guiding” industries to reduce sodium levels in their foods, this guidance is completely voluntary. 

Unfortunately, voluntary approaches have proven to be ineffective. In Australia, a similar approach to the current Canadian approach was associated with a nine per cent increase in salt content of food (yes, an increase). A recent U.S. report on reducing dietary sodium concluded that voluntary approaches alone were ineffective over a 40 year period.

This bill is just one piece of our New Democratic commitment to support the health of Canadians. It is time we renewed our commitment to public health and to our public health-care system. Go to ndp.ca/health to find out more.

NDP MP Libby Davies, who represents Vancouver East, B.C., is her party’s health critic and deputy leader. 

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