New York City is gaining a reputation as a place that’s serious about ensuring a healthy food supply. After laying down the law on transfats and requiring chain restaurants to publish calorie counts on menus, the Big Apple is now sizing up to big salt.

Should Australia be following suit?

Yes, we’re dragging the chain when it comes to salt reduction efforts, argues Jacqui Webster, from The George Institute for International Health.

She writes:

“The recent move by New York City to set food industry targets for salt levels in packaged and restaurant foods might seem bold but is in fact exactly what is required in Australia.

The Salt Institute’s claim that this is simply a large scale nutritional experiment being carried out without people’s knowledge or consent is utter nonsense.  The food industry has been increasingly pouring salt into foods for decades without anyone’s knowledge or consent.  With the insurmountable evidence now available about the harm this is doing to people’s health, it makes complete sense to require them to take it out.

Fortunately, the food industry in Australia has been sensible enough to realise this and has been gradually reducing salt in some products for many years.

However, more urgent action is needed.  Salt levels in some leading brands in Australia are still higher than in other countries, including the USA.

And Australians are still eating two or three times the amount of salt a day than is suggested for good health.  Increased salt intakes lead to high blood pressure which is one of the biggest contributors to premature heart disease and stroke in Australia.  Reducing salt consumption can reduce blood pressure resulting in positive health outcomes almost immediately.

The Australian government is falling behind many other countries (including UK, Ireland, Finland, France, Argentina and Brazil) in relation to action to reduce salt intakes.

The Food and Health Dialogue established way back in March last year (to bring together the food industry with government and some public health organisations to consider how best to improve nutrition) has been conspicuously silent. It recently announced plans to address salt, which are welcome.

But why is it taking so long?  Why should Australians be expected to wait for months if not years for government action to ensure that commonly eaten foods are not damaging their health when New York City and the UK have targets that apply today?

The Australian Division of World Action on Salt and Health (AWASH), hosted by The George Institute in Sydney, has been calling for government action to establish targets for salt levels for several years. Targets need to be set for all processed and restaurant foods that contribute to salt in the diet, including bread and breakfast cereals, but also processed meat products, soups and sauces, savoury snacks and biscuits and most fast food and takeaway meals.

As part of International Salt Awareness Week in February this year, The George Institute will be calling for government leadership to negotiate salt level targets for all these foods before the end of 2010. It has already established a database to track and monitor the salt levels of these foods against the 2008 baseline levels recently published.

The Australian Department of Health and Aging would be well advised to learn from New York City and take strong leadership on this issue.  There are no excuses for salt levels in any Australian foods being higher than in other countries.”

• Jacqui Webster is Senior Project Manager, AWASH, The George Institute for International Health