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Cooking the Books : Salt sellers

Doctors and nutritionists have long known that too much salt is bad for you as, by raising blood pressure, it increases the risk of strokes and heart attacks. So, it would seem only normal that a body bearing the name Food Standards Agency should concern itself with the amount of salt that food companies put into the foodstuffs they offer for sale.

But the Food Standards Agency has to operate within the context of a capitalist economy where all businesses, including food companies, aim to make the biggest profits possible on behalf of their shareholders. As a result it has to be careful not to try to set unrealistic standards, i.e. standards that would reduce profitability.

In 2005 the FSA put out a consultative document with proposals to achieve a 40 percent reduction in peoples average salt intake by 2010. The food industry was appalled and immediately began lobbying to have the proposals watered down.

Salt has been used to preserve food since the dawn of civilisation and before. It also adds a distinctive flavour to food. The food industry was quick to seize on this in their counter-arguments. Reducing the salt content of their products, they said, would increase the risk of food poisoning (as if, these days, there werent alternatives to salt as a food preservative). It would, they went on, make their products less tasty to consumers, whose interests of course they put above all else, etc, etc.

Times journalist Dominic Kennedy used the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to the documents submitted to the FSA by the food industry. What even he called the most nakedly honest argument came from Nestlé who submitted that:

Salt is a major constituent in many products and it is a cheap ingredient. Reduction in salt levels, even by a very small amount, significantly increases the overall cost of manufacturing the product, mainly because the ingredients used for the replacement of salt are much more expensive, e.g., herbs or meat extracts (Times, 3 August. See also timesonline.co.uk/britain, search for pro-salt campaign).

In the end the FSA agreed to lower its proposed standards. Hence the title of Kennedys article How the salt campaign was scuppered. In a society geared to human welfare, if doctors and nutritionists concluded that too much of some ingredient (whether salt, or sugar or fat since its the same story there) was detrimental to peoples health then, production not being in the hands of profit-seeking enterprises, the amount of the ingredient going in manufactured foods would be fixed taking this, and only this, into account.

But capitalism is not a society geared to serving human welfare.