In a report published today in the British Medical Journal, CASH claimed the scheme – a collaborative effort with the food industry which set salt reduction targets for 86 categories of food – had slashed stroke deaths by 42% and heart disease by 40% in eight years.
It achieved this by gradually reducing salt in food by 20-40% since its inception in 2005 - without harming industry sales and without the public noticing a difference in taste.
But under the coalition government's Responsibility Deal of 2011, secretary of state for health Andrew Lansley transferred responsibility for nutrition from the independent Food Standard’s Agency (FSA) to the food industry itself.
Derailed by the Responsibility Deal
CASH claimed that Lansley refused to renew a target for 2014 and withdrew funding to help industry overcome the technical difficulties associated with food reformulation.
The deal also enabled the food industry to present its own feedback, which made the information harder to analyse.
“The responsibility deal seemed to be a way of getting the food industry involved in improving nutrition without the Department of Health having to take much responsibility. This gave the food industry the potential to make exaggerated claims on what they were achieving,” said the report.
“As a result, four years of the salt reduction programme were lost.”
The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) estimated that had the targets been maintained, industry would have reached a salt reduction target of 0.9 grams per day today - corresponding to around 6000 preventable deaths, of which 4000 would have been premature.
In the 7-8 years that the FSA and CASH's salt reduction scheme was in place, the salt content in bread — the biggest contributor of salt to the UK diet — fell by 20% from 2001 to 2011.
On the back of this success, it was copied by other countries including the US, Brazil and Canada.
Labour: We will set maximum limits
The Labour party hit out at the Responsibility Deal saying it added to growing criticisms of the Tory-Lib Dem government’s public health record.
Luciana Berger, Labour's shadow public health minister, told FoodNavigator: "Nearly two-thirds of adults and a third of children in England are overweight or obese, affecting the life expectancy of millions and hitting our NHS with a £5 billion bill every year.
"Yet instead of taking the bold action that we desperately need, ministers, with their voluntary Responsibility Deal, have allowed commercial interests to dictate their public health policy.”
She said that Labour pledged to take decisive action against the obesity crisis by setting maximum limits on sugar, fat and salt in food that was predominantly marketed to children.
Give industry ‘a level playing field’
Professor Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London and leading author of the report called for mechanisms to control the food industry – "the single biggest cause of death and ill health in the UK" – in a similar way to the tobacco industry.
The report also said that industry desire to reformulate was there – but that enforcement was essential to its success.
“It is imperative that responsibility for nutrition be handed back to an independent agency, where it is not affected by changes in government, ministers, or political lobbying.
“Members of the food industry have said that they are keen to reformulate their foods to make them healthier. All they require is to be on a 'level playing field' with the other major companies, so that they can make their foods healthier in a structured, incremental way.”
Although targets for 2017 have been set there has been a poor sign-up so far, with major companies such as Unilever, McDonalds and Kellogg’s failing to commit.
The UK election will take place in May.