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Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Public Health: speech to the World Health Organisation Forum on Salt

  • Last modified date:
    7 December 2010
Anne Milton MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Public Health

Anne Milton MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Public Health, speaks to the World Health Organisation Forum on Salt, June 30 2010

(As delivered.)

Thank you very much, Steve [Wearne, FSA].

It’s my pleasure to be here today, surrounded by such a wealth of expertise and experience. And it is my privilege to address an audience who have contributed so much to improving health around the world.

It seems appropriate to me that we meet under the auspices of the World Health Organisation; that we represent all corners of the globe. 

Because across continents, throughout civilisation, the history of salt has also been our history. 

Empires have been founded and kingdoms have fallen on this precious substance. It freed us from the seasons and gifted us travel. It gave life to early explorers and wealth to medieval miners. Whether extracted from the earth or harvested from the sea, salt has been the engine of wars, the builder of roads, and the creator of cities.
At the tables of the nobility, your position relative to the salt cellar either conferred status  or confirmed inferiority.

Our relationship with salt has always been both blessing and curse. And today, we are paying a price for that relationship. As our understanding of the human body has grown, so has the realisation that overuse can pose a real threat to our health. 

Cardiovascular disease is one of the biggest challenges we face in health policy. Hypertension is one of the main causes of stroke and coronary heart disease. Around half of all stroke and heart disease deaths are attributed to high blood pressure. And there is strong evidence linking salt intake to increased risk of high blood pressure.

The human impact is clear: millions of lives are affected in our country alone.

But there’s a financial cost to be paid, too. We currently spend about £7.4 billion treating circulatory disease.

I’m pleased that a number of the sessions over the next two days will look closely at how we measure the evidence for – and effectiveness of – salt reduction strategies.

Because when it comes to health interventions, spending must be matched to evidence. It’s about what works.

Advances in science offer us tempting glimpses of a future free from inherited disease. But getting to grips with salt reduction is one of the biggest, most basic improvements we can make to global health now.

The World Health Organisation recognises the importance of this goal – and also recognises just how achievable it is.

Their commitment to salt reduction reflects an understanding of the wide-ranging health impact of over consumption. Salt features in global strategies on both disease and diet.

The WHO’s commitment is matched by our action to reduce salt consumption here in the UK.

Manufacturers, retailers, and suppliers have joined with trade associations to bring about genuine change, cutting salt levels in some foods by half – and others by a quarter.

And actually, there hasn’t been consumer outcry. There haven’t been protests in the street or a significant sales impact. Because much of the salt that we were consuming was hiding in plain sight.

For most people, salt is something that’s found in savoury snacks. They think it’s only the pretzels and the pizzas that are responsible. Yet the food industry cut salt levels in breads, in cakes, in biscuits and breakfast cereals.

The result? Average salt consumption in the UK has fallen by just under a gram a year, avoiding 6,000 premature deaths and saving £1.5 billion.

Of course there’s a long way still to go. But the lesson of this successful start is the value of partnership.

By working together with industry, together with the third sector and together with our citizens we can keep up the momentum. 

And actually, citizens are a vital part of that chain.

Too often in public health policy, we focus exclusively on the health part, and forget about the public.

The WHO, and governments around the world, have been right to work closely with industry on reformulation.

The international nature of food production demands action across borders.

And I’m proud that the UK leads a network of European countries running salt reduction programmes.

But salt consumption also happens in the home – and some studies suggest that the culture of ‘celebrity chefs’ has contributed to soaring salt content in recipes, too.

Government has a clear role to play in managing the nation’s intake.

We can work hard from the centre, bringing everyone together to work towards a common aim.

But government can only reach so far. We can’t step into peoples homes and stop them reaching for the cruet. 

There is an element of personal responsibility which cannot be ignored. For many people, decisions about food are no place for government. 

But if we can work together to increase public awareness, if we can give people the right information, if we can encourage them to think about the decisions they make at home and in the supermarket, we can keep up the momentum when it comes to reduction.

Salt started out as a preservative, something that allowed us carry food with us and stray beyond the reaches of the autumn harvest.

But as global trade increased and our world community came closer together, salt became less about food security and more about flavour.

Many cuisines and many palates around the world are now dependent on it. Or rather, they think they depend on it.

Information and co-ordination are the keys to breaking that dependence.

By giving people the right information about salt content, we allow them to make a truly informed choice.

And by co-ordinating our efforts on production and salt reduction strategies we can make the market fairer and healthier for all of our citizens.

I’m looking forward to hearing about the results of your sessions on creating an enabling environment.

Because although we’ve already secured a consensus on the need to reduce salt consumption, our next challenge is to make good on our rhetoric and start to change consumer expectations.

So as I open the Forum, I want to thank you all for coming – and for signalling your desire to take salt reduction further.

I know you have a busy few days ahead.

But I’m sure that the expertise I mentioned earlier will be matched with energy and enthusiasm.

And I know the work done at this meeting will help inform policy, here in the UK and beyond.

Thank you very much.

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