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Children: Healthy Eating

Volume 699: debated on Thursday 28 February 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What proposals they have for requiring manufacturers to reduce the high amounts of salt in some children’s food.

My Lords, the Food Standards Agency has set salt reduction targets and is working in partnership with the food industry and others to reduce the salt levels in foods that contribute most of the salt consumed by adults and children. There are of course legal controls and guidance covering salt in infant food and formula and food served to children at school and in care settings.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that positive Answer. Has she noticed that manufacturers list not salt among their ingredients in their labelling, but always sodium—or sodium chloride? Does she agree that many parents who are anxious to avoid giving their children food that may lead to high blood pressure, heart attack or even cancer in later life may not know that sodium—or sodium chloride—is common salt?

My Lords, my noble friend is correct and I commend her for her admirable record of pursuing these issues. The Food Standards Agency has been working hard with industry to reduce salt in food. It has set targets for salt levels to be reduced in 85 different categories of processed food. It is also running a major consumer campaign aimed at raising public awareness of the implications of consuming too much salt. It has been running that campaign since September 2004, and towards the end of this year we will see an evaluation of what effect it is having. Early indications are that it is having some effect, and it is being directed at parents, and especially at mums.

My Lords, it is clearly highly desirable that the foods eaten by children have acceptable levels of salt, and of sugar and fat. However, does the Minister agree that ongoing promotion of foods that are high in those nutrients clearly continues to fuel the rise in obesity and diet-related disease in our children? Have the Government now recognised the need for a ban on such TV promotion before 9 pm, which has been discussed? If so, when can we expect such a measure to be introduced?

My Lords, I am pleased to report to the House—and to the noble Baroness—that the UK is recognised as having the most comprehensive programme of salt reduction in the world. We are leading the World Health Organisation’s salt action network, and our approach is now being replicated in several other countries. We have not only reversed a rising trend in salt intake, but we have achieved an average population intake reduction. This is only half a gram a year so far, but that has already saved 3,300 lives. This might not sound like much, but the scale and speed of this reduction is faster than has been achieved in any other country. We are making a determined effort to conquer this issue.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the fact that we all like a salty taste is demonstrated by the disappearance every day of the free biscuits in the Bishops’ Bar? This taste is cultivated in childhood. Why are the Government taking so long and dithering over forcing manufacturers of prepared food and snacks that children in particular eat to reduce the salt content? The Minister says that progress is being made, but salt in high quantities is toxic. Where is the action? We want it now—or is she afraid of some terrible Pringles revenge?

My Lords, actually, I do not really like Pringles very much. The noble Baroness is absolutely right that a lot of this is to do with taste and habit, and with the fact that we all have salt pots on our table and our children are used to seeing that. Noble Lords should make a commitment to have no salt pots on their table.

The Government’s approach to reducing people’s intake includes several things. The first is the reformulation that will help to reduce the level of salt in foods so that the 85 different categories already referred to include things such as pizzas, snacks, breakfast cereals and convenience products. Those targets are being monitored and, if necessary, firmer action will be taken, as the noble Baroness will be aware. The consumer awareness campaigns mean that the number of consumers cutting down on salt has increased by more than a third. Indeed, there is a tenfold increase in the awareness of the “6 grams a day” message. This does not mean, however, that there is not more to do; clearly there is.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the European Commission announced the publication of a draft regulation to introduce compulsory front-of-the-pack food labelling, based on guidance on daily amounts? The Conservatives have been calling for the Government to adopt the approach favoured by the European Commission since 2004. When are they going to do so?

My Lords, it is nice to hear that the Conservatives approve of something that the European Commission is recommending. Noble Lords are, I am sure, aware that the recommended daily intake for adults is 6 grams. The recommended daily intake for children is less than 1 gram a day, but there is a sliding scale for children. It is very important that the Government continue their dialogue with food manufacturers to ensure that they recognise that. I feel I should mention that McCain, Heinz and Kraft are actively targeting salt reduction, so great progress is being made.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that for many parents who want to ensure that the products that they buy have as little salt as possible, the type size used to list the ingredients is so small that most people, even with good eyesight, cannot read it? Could she encourage manufacturers to ensure that the labelling can be read by ordinary people?

My Lords, I will write to the noble Baroness to answer her question.

My noble friend is quite correct, and the answer is yes, we will.