Campaigners branded the voluntary scheme “no longer fit for purpose” after a study showed progress on slashing the nation’s intake had begun to reverse.
Average salt consumption in England fell by a fifth from 9.38g per day at the time of its introduction in 2003 to 7.58g in 2014.
The programme was hailed as a huge success that cut rates of strokes and heart disease and saved the NHS £1.5billion per year.
Experts estimated that, had this progress continued, salt intake would have fallen by a further 1.45g per day by 2018. This would have prevented 38,000 deaths from strokes and heart disease in just four years, of which 24,000 would have been premature, they said.
However, the research from Queen Mary University of London found average salt intake instead rose to a total of 8.39g per day.
Changes to the programme’s oversight and a lack of accountability for companies that failed to meet targets were blamed for the recent poor progress.
Study co-author Sonia Pombo, also campaign lead at Action on Salt, said: “The maximum limit that we should be having per day as adults is 6g of salt. We’re currently eating about 40 percent more than that.
“Even just a 1g reduction in daily population salt intake could prevent over 4,000 premature deaths from stroke and heart disease.
“It’s a very small amount that could easily come out of our diets without us necessarily noticing it from a taste point of view.”
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The Food Standards Agency took a “carrot and stick approach” when the programme was first launched, holding regular meetings with industry leaders and closely monitoring the salt content of products, Ms Pombo said.
But the scheme was weakened following the transfer of responsibility for nutrition to the Department of Health in 2010 and the launch of the Public Health Responsibility Deal in 2011, which saw policymakers work with industry to tackle health issues, she claimed.
Ms Pombo said: “They tried to create this kind of partnership with food companies, not just on salt reduction but saturated fat, calories and other things.
“They basically let food companies monitor themselves…there was no structure and effective way of holding companies to account.
“Each little tweak to what was a really successful programme just meant that momentum was lost.
“At the moment it’s a voluntary salt reduction programme in name only, there is no incentive for companies to follow it.”
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Eating too much salt causes more water to be held in the bloodstream, increasing blood pressure. High blood pressure increases risk of heart and circulatory diseases.
The study, published in the Journal of Hypertension, analysed national surveys and death registrations for thousands of people aged 19-64.
It found that progress in reducing blood pressure levels and deaths from stroke and heart disease also plateaued after 2014.
Campaigners including 33 experts and health charities are now calling for a tougher mandatory programme, with stringent targets and penalties for companies that fail to meet them.
A survey of 2,000 people for Action on Salt found eight in 10 thought ministers should do more to reduce the amount of salt we eat.
And 85 per cent supported the idea of requiring food companies to cut unnecessary salt from their products.
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Professor Graham MacGregor, an expert in cardiovascular medicine at QMUL and Action on Salt’s chairman, said: “This study reinforces the urgent need for a robust system where we generate worthwhile reductions in salt intake which make a positive and lasting impact.
“It is now up to the Government to set up a coherent strategy where the food industry is instructed what to do, rather than the food industry telling the Government what to do.
“We must get our salt reduction strategy back on track for the benefit of public health, the UK workforce, our overburdened NHS and the economy.”
John Maingay, director of policy and influencing at the British Heart Foundation, said: “These concerning findings show how little progress there has been in recent years to reduce the salt in our food.
“Most of us eat too much salt, and this puts us at risk of developing high blood pressure and then heart disease.
“Helping the nation to cut its salt intake would prevent more heart attacks and strokes, easing pressure on the NHS, and the Government and food industry have a critical role to play in this.
“Today’s findings should convince politicians to give food manufacturers more incentives to reduce the salt content of their products, and start seriously considering mandatory measures to follow the current voluntary programme.”
Katharine Jenner, the director of the Obesity Health Alliance, said: “This new research is very clear that food companies cannot match the scale and pace needed to deliver a healthier nation, without government help to level the playing field.
“It should be easy to eat healthily, but it’s not. The public wants it to be easier, and overwhelmingly supports action from government to require companies to reduce salt in their food.”
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