Three months ago the government extended the deadline for the food industry to come up with radical plans to cut the levels of salt in food, if the manufacturers were to avoid compulsory action.
Then Melanie Johnson told Newsnight the amount of salt in our diet was actually rising, but refused to bring in either labelling or a policy of name and shame. But Newsnight has discovered the consultations with industry are in a shambles, just as people are hardening their attitudes to salt in their food.
80% of people who responded to a poll commissioned for the BBC's Healthy Britain week want the government to take action and make it more difficult to eat unhealthily by restricting salt, fat and sugar in processed food.
Liz Mackean reported on how we've become a nation of salt junkies.
Because we're not using much salt in this, we're going to put some other flavours in there. We're going to put in the nutmegż and you can use the zest of lemon.
Celebrity chefs have tried to rescue the British diet from blandness.
We'll make the first crepe...
Now Nick Nairn wants to cure it of something else; an ingredient that permeates our food and is said to be a leading cause of ill health.
It was one gram of salt per 100 grams - chocolate!
He believes we're now addicted to salt and - like junkies - we need to be weaned off it.
I want to cook food which has really high quality ingredients and cook it properly and create a harmonious dish without the use of a lot of salt. If people are addicted to salt and their reference point is very high, they'll taste the food and think it's bland.
We're eating more salt than ever, without even realising it. Most of it, 80%, is hidden in the food we buy. Not just takeaways or sausages, but staples like bread and cereal, just the kind of food we give our children. Weight for weight there is more salt in these crisps than sea water. This is sea water, 2.5%. Add this extra for the amount that's in the crisps, 4%. Salt is linked to a growing health menace: high blood pressure, a condition that affects nearly half the adult population. Fiona Carnan has come to Nick Nairn's cook school to learn more. She has special reason to be concerned.
I was at work one day and felt unwell at lunch time. I ended up going to hospital to the accident and emergency department in the afternoon. The first I knew was when the nurse asked me, "How long have you had high blood pressure?" I had no idea.
Fiona was found to have kidney failure and has since had a transplant. It made her think about the salt in her diet.
When I look back now and when I consider what I know now about salt that's in everyday foods, then probably my salt intake was reasonably high.
A new survey of processed foods shows just how easy it is to eat large amounts of salt even when making apparently healthy choices. Take a breakfast of Sainsbury's Be Good To Yourself flakes and orchard fruit: 1.84 grams.
Two slices of Marks & Spencer toast: 2 grams.
Two Sainsbury's hot & spicy sausages: 2.84 grams.
Lunch of a Budgens pork pie: 4.25 grams.
A dinner of Seeds of Change organic tomato soup: 4.46 grams.
And two Tesco's smoked salmon fish cakes and vegetables: 3.6 grams.
You'll have eaten virtually 19 grams of salt more than three times the recommended level.
PROFESSOR GRAHAM MACGREGOR
CONSENSUS ACTION ON SALT AND HEALTH:
Salt is very dangerous. It's the main cause of the rise in blood pressure that occurs with age, therefore responsible for people with high blood pressure. In the UK approximately 40% of the adult population have high blood pressure. High blood pressure is the major cause of strokes, heart attacks and heart failure. So it is responsible for approximately 120,000 deaths a year in the UK.
Graham Macgregor and his researchers are convinced that a reduction in the amount of salt we eat will save lives. They claim that a cut of 10% of salt in processed foods would lead to 14,000 fewer strokes and heart attacks each year, of half of those, 7,000, are fatal. However even within the medical profession there's disagreement about the extent to which salt is to blame.
PROFESSOR TONY HEAGERTY
MANCHESTER ROYAL INFIRMARY:
I feel that there are lots of population based risk factors that we need to actually concentrate upon. I would number salt as perhaps one of these factors, but not the be-all and end-all of what our communities do in terms of their lifestyles and how it impacts upon their circulation and heart disease.
Whatever the level of proof the Government is determined we should eat less salt. It's taking action with the FSA, its Food Standards Agency. Most of us eat around eleven grams of salts a day. The Department of Health wants that reduced to six grams. Some advisors think it should be cut even further to three. Some food companies already offer lower salt foods. But in the processed meat industry where some salt is added for safety reasons, levels remain especially high. They're unlikely to be lowered in the immediate future. Last Christmas the Government asked the food industry to come up with plans to lower salt content by February. Health minister Melanie Johnson was unhappy with their response. In a general letter in June she complained the plans were "often too short on detail and specific actions". The food industry in turn was unhappy with her response.
HEAD OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS, SAINSBURY'S:
We get a rather surprising letter from Melanie Johnson which seemed to take no account of the steps that we had taken to reduce salt, which we had indeed agreed with the Government agency, the Food Standards Agency. We haven't had a specific response to our action plan from the Department of Health.
Instead Melanie Johnson asked everyone to submit revised plans by the 18th of September. But every food producer we've contacted, pointed out that the lack of an individual response to their original plans makes it difficult to come up with new ones. So, if they needed it, they now have the perfect excuse to ignore the minister's deadline.
Melanie Johnson has asked us to submit our action plan, a revised action plan, along with others in the food industry by September 18th. We have already told her that we won't meet that deadline because we believe that our action plan is fine. We agreed it with the Food Standards Agency and are making good progress towards achieving the targets we've set ourselves.
It's chicken flavour soup mix. When you look closely at the list of ingredients, the ingredients in order of weight are first and foremost salt.
Malcolm Kane has spent his career in the food industry. He used to be Sainsbury's head of food safety.
It's very significant for three things, firstly there's no chicken, secondly there's no chicken flavour and thirdly the biggest ingredient is salt.
Even in identical products he says there can be vast differences in salt levels. It's often added to suit the food industry - not the consumer.
It is a savoury flavour in its own right and therefore it masks and allows you to use cheaper flavourings or lower meat contents, that's one thing. It's also a water binder, so - particularly in conjunction with other salts like sodium polyphosphates - it helps water to be bound in to in particular the meat content of foods and fresh and cooked meats, so it helps in the water absorption which improves the eating succulence, which is a definite product improvement. But of course it also adds water, which is a weight improvement and a cost improvement as well. It helps with other salts.
Scotland can boast its scenery, but its health record leaves more to be desired. Its diet contains more salt than anywhere in the UK. Bread is one of the main sources. Back at Nick Nairn's cook school, Fiona Carnan wants to make sure her children avoid the dangers of eating too much of it. They're taking part in an experiment.
Let's start with the ones with no salt in them at all. These are nice and warm and just out of the oven.
You don't like it?
We're going to move up, a big leap, these are 1% salt, that's 0.4 grams of sodium. That would qualify for these to be called lower salt - just, and no more.
That's quite nice, yeah.
If we try these rolls at the end here, these are the standard 2% salt, about 0.8 sodium per 100 grams. Once you've swallowed the bread, can you taste that salt in your mouth? It builds up in your mouth. It's residual salt. You don't need that much salt in there. All the really sexy things in food, the real nuances in food are flavours that happen in the olfactory canal, the nose:
delicate things. The tongue is a bit of a blunt instrument. It can only detect hot, sweet, salty, sour flavours. They're big blunt flavours which go straight to your brain and say, "hey lots of stuff happening in here!" They mask the subtle things that are happening.
Most of our salt comes from Cheshire where the deposits are closest to the surface. At the new Cheshire salt works it's found in brine, which is then evaporated to produce salt. Salt manufacturers aren't at all happy to have their product cast as the villain of modern diets. Around here, it's celebrated as a life force, central to food safety and quality and vital in medicine, like kidney dialysis and saline drips. Salt has been produced in this area since Roman times. There's a view that the wisdom of the ages is being lost in a misguided Government pursuit of health targets. They believe the Government hasn't properly thought through the consequences of a diet where salt is largely off the menu.
SALT MANUFACTURERS' ASSOCIATION:
It's an extremely dangerous policy without looking at the risks, without properly taking into account international scientific opinion, which again and again has repeated that there is no benefit to the normotensive population. So what we're seeing is effectively because of a smaller proportion of hypertensive people in the overall nation, the whole diet of the complete nation is being altered to accommodate this.
The potential dangers of excess salt were raised more than a decade ago. Ever since the food industry has been under pressure to act. It's well known that the more salt you eat, the thirstier you become. Since many producers have an interest in both the snacks and soft drink sectors, those who want change believe it's being held up for commercial reasons.
Quite frankly, they put the salt into these products, we as consumers didn't ask for it to be put there. Did you ask for the salt to be put in the food? Did you? You didn't. And the fact is that they're responsible now for all these strokes and heart attacks. They are the ones putting it there. The public can't get it out and they need to do something about it. I think that if they don't respond, they will be held responsible for all these strokes and heart attacks that are occurring unnecessarily in the UK.
Salt has a function in some foods, so it's not easy to reduce salt overnight for very technical reasons. Equally our customers would notice if we suddenly cut salt out in a way that perhaps reduced the flavour in a product. One needs to find substitutes quite often for salt. Although I recognise what professor McGregor is saying, it's not quite as simple as he suggests it is.
One solution to hidden salt is clearer labelling. At the moment it isn't mandatory, and it is confusing. Some producers declare it as sodium. This allows them to show a lower reading than the salt equivalent, which is 2.5 times greater. The EU is due to update regulation this year and there's a call for greater clarity.
0.8 grams of sodium per 100 grams doesn't mean anything to the consumer. Let's stick on green, very low salt, eat as much as you like, amber, go with caution, red, don't touch it.
If you're out working and you come home and want to prepare a family meal quickly, it's easy to turn to a jar of sauce or a packet of something to make up a meal and the amount of salt in that is frightening.
The only way to avoid too much salt is to cook fresh food. In our fast food society we're doing less of it. That puts the food industry in charge of our salt intake. Unless or until they act, buyer beware!
This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.