Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Less salt, more consumer information please!

As part of her work for World Salt Awareness Week, Public Health Nutritionist Clare Farrand explains the need for clear food labelling on a global scale.

We are all eating too much salt, and it’s damaging our health. Salt puts up our blood pressure, which leads to strokes and heart attacks, and is also linked to kidney disease, stomach cancer and osteoporosis. I can’t remember the last time I picked up a salt shaker, or caught a glimpse of the white stuff (people tend to hide it when I visit), but just because I don’t use it doesn’t mean I don’t have to worry about my salt intake. That’s because most of the salt that we eat (75%) is hidden in the foods that we buy. 

And I’m not just talking about the foods that taste salty; it’s in the most surprising places such as bread, breakfast cereals, soups, sandwiches, cheese, biscuits, and pastries. Of course, as a nutritionist, I am trained in the art of cracking over-complicated food labels, translating ‘sodium’ to ‘salt’, and know how much salt is high, medium or low, so I should be able to understand what is in my food. But for everyone else, how can you  choose to eat less salt?  

This is why clear food labelling is so important. If  nutrition information was presented in a consistent, easy-to-use way across all products, in all supermarkets, in all  food establishments (eg, restaurants, fast food chains, cafes, and takeaways) in all the land, then we would be able to find out what we are eating. But it is not. Even in the UK where most of the food that we buy in the supermarkets is labelled, the language on the label is often so complicated that most consumers are left confused rather than informed. 

In my opinion, the food industry has a responsibility to tell us what they are putting in our food so that we know what we are eating. In fact, not only do they have a responsibility to tell us what is in our food, they also have a moral obligation to ensure that what they do put in our food is not going to damage our health. 
What is worrying though is that if we did have clear and consistent labelling, and all of our food was shown to be high in salt, fat, and sugar, we STILL wouldn’t have a choice

That said, in the UK there has been lots of good work going on to tackle this issue. Many food manufacturers are now starting to gradually reduce the amount of salt in our foods; old favourites such as Kellogg’s Cornflakes and HP Sauce are much less salty than they used to be, also new brands of lower salt foods like Seabrook reduced-salt crisps and Hampstead Farms no-salt sauces are now available.

Sadly this is not  the case around the world. Salt reductions have been made in the UK due to the successful programme that has been in effect since 2005, and through the work of CI member organisation Consensus Action on Salt and Health who continually put pressure on the food industry to reduce the amount of salt they add to our food (see recent survey on pizza). 

What we really need to do now is spread this action worldwide. Many food manufacturers that sell foods in the UK are global organisations. Therefore, the reductions they have made in the UK should easily be made elsewhere. There is no reason why the UK should be so privileged! We must continue to demand less salt and call for clearer food labelling – especially in countries where there currently is none. After all, if we are to take responsibility for our own health, we at least need the information to do so. 

Until the food industry removes the excessive amounts of salt they put in our food, I will be cooking from scratch. After all, if I want to eat salt, I can always add it myself.

So this week, World Salt Awareness Week, let’s all ask for “Si’isi’iange masima”, or, “less salt please”.

Clare Farrand is a Public Health Nutritionist for the salt reduction charity, World Action on Salt and Health (WASH), a global organisation with the mission to reduce population level salt intake around the world.  

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Consumer access to knowledge is vital for Africa's development

Dieunedort Wandji of Consumers International explains why consumer protection in the digital age is so important to Africa and developing countries. 

Although consumer protection is weak in many developing countries, consumers across the Global South will make a giant leap in claiming their rights by effectively benchmarking international advocacy on digital consumer rights issues.

This was the impression I was left with after attending Consumers International’s Access to Knowldge (A2K) meeting (Consumers in the Information Society: Access, Fairness and Representation, 8-9 March, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia).  The diversity of participants and far-reaching content captured the varied and versatile challenges of consumers in the digital age. Many of which are crucial to the developing world. 

As I sat through all these inspiring presentations about consumer protection in the information society and tried to make sense of them from an African perspective, it began to dawn on me that the developing world’s stake in this battle is a double-fold one.

African consumers in particular are poised to benefit more than anyone else from CI’s vanguard approach in the protection of consumers in the information society, as laid out at Kuala Lumpur meeting.

As he plays his games on my laptop, my five-year-old son is still suspicious about my story that, growing up in Africa, it was not until I became a university student that I was able to first set eyes on a computer. I presume the African digital consumer of tomorrow is likely to be unaware of a lot that has come before. While enjoying doing creative work, tomorrow’s African consumer might not realise just how much RMC (Rights Management Corporations) had twisted laws to invade privacy or abused technology to pervert ownership rights. 

I look forward to the time in Africa when the digital consumer will have no knowledge of today’s limitations and frustrations.  This unawareness of past battles will however depend on how quickly and efficiently African consumer rights groups pick up the pace of international advocacy trends today. More precisely, this will depend on their ability to build on CI’s A2K momentum so as to tackle the twin issues currently affecting the African consumer in fast changing digital markets: access and protection.

As any advance in digital technology nowadays carries a global impact, it is of critical importance that the efforts of the consumer movement in the developing world be inversely proportional to the number of actual users of digital products and services.

There are challenges lying ahead for consumer organisations in the developing world. Apart from the necessity for African countries to emulate the policies and regulations of European countries, there is the need to prevent developing countries from becoming retreat bases for failed RMC abuse attempts. In fact, as has been the case with tobacco regulations, there is concern that vulnerable copyright regulatory frameworks can be taken advantage of, to implement abusive policies that could not be pushed through in the developed world. For instance, it has now become illegal in India to share a joke over the internet, without appropriately quoting your sources!

Yet again, as much as the digital consumer needs protection in Africa, campaigning for access remains equally important. The latest CI Global Consumer Survey on Broadband (pdf)  for instance suggests that access to broadband technology is becoming a “prerequisite for consumers’ full participation in civic and cultural life”. At the same time, many experts report that less than 5% of Africans having access to new technologies such as computers, smart phones and other devices that support access to broadband. 

The digital divide seems to be widening and taking on various forms. Instead of being commensurate to local income levels, IT products turn out to be more expensive on African markets. Just as we are revolted by the mere thought that public libraries in their present form would never have existed, had current copyright laws preceded them, it is equally unacceptable that access to collective knowledge in Africa should be hampered through abusive regulations, unfair pricing and contrived technological barriers.