Brits are eating less salt. Average daily consumption has fallen by 0.9g to 8.6g since 2000, reports the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
The government is happy with this - it’s fed up with shelling out on NHS treatment for people with high blood pressure. But it wants consumption to drop more quickly towards 6g a day. So the FSA has tightened up its 2010 salt reduction targets for food manufacturers and introduced even tougher measures for 2012.
The targets - voluntary, although the threat of legislation is ever-present - cover 30 categories of food, including several bakery categories and snacks. Bakery, except for cakes, has escaped the new 2010 targets. But there is work to be done for 2012. Plain bread, for example, should contain no more than 370mg of sodium per 100g. Some in the industry feel it cannot go any further without losing customers.
Both craft and plant bakers need salt for taste and successful proving. President of the National Association of Master Bakers (NA) Chris Beaney said the craft bakery sector has always used the minimum salt it has to use to make a proper loaf. "But we haven’t got a lot of leeway," he said. "Apart from flavour, salt contributes to the work of the yeast and the rising of the bread."
Beaney, who runs Rochester-based Beaney’s bakery, added: "We’re heading to a stage where we won’t be able to go much further with salt... we will get down to a minimum and we won’t be able to go much below that. Perhaps the industry will come up with a different product that can impart flavour into the bread."
Craft bakers would rather make their own decisions about salt levels, it seems. Thomas Adams, managing director of North- ampton bakery retailer Oliver Adams, said it would stick with its current recipes for the time being "although, when we manufacture for a third party, we have to do what they require, but it’s damned difficult". Although Adams thinks the 2012 targets are achievable, he said: "It’s going to give some people dreadful processing problems, because of issues of yeast."
Representing the plant industry, Federation of Bakers (FoB) director Gordon Polson has spoken of the "technical challenges" the 2012 targets will bring. Some plant bakers have already reduced their salt usage. Banbury-based Fine Lady Bakeries is already meeting the 2012 targets for the bread it sells into foodservice - to help its sandwich-making clients meet their own targets. In its retail division, however, managing director Joe Street said Fine Lady adjusts salt levels to meet the wishes of each customer. Of key importance, Street added, is the need for a level playing field between manufacturers - hard to ensure under a volun- tary scheme.
While companies such as Fine Lady have been working in conjunction with sandwich makers on salt levels, it seems the sandwich industry as a whole is far from happy with the FSA’s proposals. British Sandwich Association director Jim Winship described them as "ludicrous" and not in tune with consumer demand.
"The main problem with reducing salt targets even further is that, unless the FSA convinces consumers to reduce their salt levels at the same pace, then they will not want to buy the sandwiches. We have more complaints now from consumers about blandness than ever," said Winship.
"There needs to be a hiatus to let consumers catch up. If the food industry feels it is being put at a competitive disadvantage, then it will not do it.
"We don’t understand how the FSA came by these targets, because they seem to have ignored everyone’s input."
Others across the industry declined to comment - or said their policy was to go along with the FSA’s recommendations. "It’s not in our interests to be seen as heavy users of salt," said Maple Leaf UK’s marketing and innovations director Guy Hall.
While smaller producers may be able to continue liberal use of salt, major manufacturers are unlikely to be able to duck out, as the FSA proposes to collect samples, including bread, rolls and morning goods, cakes, buns, pastries, pies and sandwiches, directly from them for testing.
As the FSA has published its proposed targets in the form of a consultation, there is still time to respond, and it’s important that the industry gets its views heard. But it is difficult to know just how open the FSA is to adjusting the targets. Even if the public is not quite ready to dump its favourite seasoning, the FSA is likely to force the industry to give up its own reliance on it.
l The deadline for responding to the FSA’s consultation on salt is 31 October. See [http://www.food.gov.uk]