Sunday, August 03, 2008

Dangerous salt phobia in Britain

Moves to cut salt levels in bacon and ham risk increasing potentially fatal cases of the paralysing food bug botulism, the Food Standards Agency has been warned. Ham processors are particularly concerned at moves to reduce salt content to 2.13g per 100g by 2010 and to 1.75g by 2012. They said their concern was not because of a resistance to change, but was related to the health risks. Other food sectors are also unhappy about the revised salt reduction targets from the watchdog, which they insist are putting consumers off sandwiches and ready meals.

The issue threatens to create a rift between the food industry and the agency. But health campaigners are urging the FSA to stand firm and to resist what they say is scaremongering from an industry reluctant to change its manufacturing practices. Malcolm Kane, an independent food technology consultant who advises the campaign group Consensus Action of Salt in Health, suggested that the objections from industry were because companies feared the shelf-life of products may have to be reduced below the current average of ten-day "use by" dates: "I'm disappointed. It is just a feeble excuse for doing nothing about salt levels. They don't want to lower salt levels because they are nervous about consumer reaction and people not liking the taste with less salt."

The agency suggested last month that 14,000 premature deaths a year could be avoided if adults reduced salt intake to 6g a day. The current average is 8.6g a day, already down from 9.5g in 2001.

Claire Cheney, director-general of the Provision Trade Federation, which represents leading processed meat companies, has denounced the targets as unrealistic and a potential risk to human health. "If you have not got sufficient preservative in a product like ham you get pockets where the salt levels are too low to prevent the formation of the botulism toxin."

She told The Grocer magazine: "This will force us to reduce it [the shelf-life] further and with that come serious food safety concerns, not least the risk of botulism." She said that salt was in the product for technological reasons not for taste. Her view is supported by the British Meat Processors Association. Elizabeth Andoh-Kesson, its technical manager, said: "We are very worried about the stricter targets and believe that reducing salt further has implications for food safety and shelf life of products," she said.

Other trade associations are also objecting to further salt cuts. Jim Winship, the chairman of the British Sandwich Association, denounced the targets as "absolutely staggering". He said: "We are already getting complaints from retailers that consumers don't like the blandness of many sandwiches to meet existing salt targets. Sandwich makers don't add salt to sandwiches at all but it is in products such as cheese, bacon and ham. We'll soon be at a point where people stop buying sandwiches and make them at home where they add as much salt as they want. This would affect an important industry. We sell 2.8 billion packs of sandwiches a year with a market value of 5.25 billion pounds."

Ready-meal manufacturers such as Northern Foods and Kerry Foods, which are represented by the Chilled Food Association, are also anxious that further salt reductions will affect their œ9 billion a year market. Kaarin Goodburn, the secretary-general, said: "We are already reformulating many recipes but we have got reports that consumers don't like the taste especially in some healthy ranges of meals, such as lasagne, where there has been a decline in sales. What's the incentive to reformulate if it results in falling sales? People are already putting in lots more herbs instead of salt but many people don't like the taste. " Peter Sherratt, the general secretary of the Salt Association, said that feed-back from its members suggested that the agency targets had gone too far."


Cut out those peas if you really want a bundle of joy

'Tis the season to go on a diet. The bikini diet. The beach body diet. Or, the latest diet on the scene: The Fertility Diet, which claims that cutting out certain foods can help maximise your chance of having a baby "at any age".

Thus it is a diet that, if successful, will actually make you gain weight, but no matter - 21st-century women with careers and chaotic love lives adore this kind of thing, for it allows us to stick our fingers in our ears and say "la, la, la, I CAN'T HEAR YOU", to our biological clocks, safe in the belief that when we are in our forties - or even fifties, according to this book - a bouncing bundle of joy will be ours if we cut out peas.

Seriously. According to the author, Sarah Dobbyn, peas are the enemy of women trying to conceive. As is rhubarb, but how often do you eat that? Eggs and fruit juices should also be avoided. Meat, sugar, dairy, alcohol... anything that might remotely pass for fun or get you in the mood is a no-no.

Ms Dobbyn, who also explores the effect of the moon on fertility, has no medical qualifications. She is a nutritionist who used to be a barrister, so we must credit her with some intelligence, but her assertion that your diet might lead to you getting pregnant in your fifties is a tad moronic considering only a handful of people around the world have babies at this age, usually thanks to IVF rather than the waxing and waning of the moon. The fact remains that fertility still declines rapidly once we hit 35.

To claim otherwise sends out a dangerous message to young women, who already believe that IVF will sort things out. Witness Angelina Jolie, whose new-born twins were apparently made in a test-tube because she couldn't be bothered to try to conceive naturally - and this woman goes out with Brad Pitt.

Dobbyn says her book will allow the Bridget Jones generation to hit the snooze button on their biological clocks, so they can "find the right man without that element of panic", which is very kind of her, if a bit patronising.

Dobbyn herself is 43 - young in the grand scheme of things, but cutting it fine when it comes to starting a family, which she said she shortly hoped to do in an interview at the weekend. I wish her luck, but can't help thinking that life would be easier if we admitted that Mother Nature, cruel mistress that she is, has precious little time for members of the sisterhood over 35.

It could be worse. We could live in Russia, where a woman has lost her case for sexual harassment after a judge ruled that employers were obliged to try it on with staff to ensure the survival of the human race. And no, I am not making this up.

Apparently, it's all part of the job description over there, where a recent survey found that 80 per cent of women believed that the only way to get a rise is to carry out sexual favours. Western women may want it all - work and babies - but as this case proves, perhaps we should be careful what we wish for.


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