Libby addresses Parliament about her bill, a Sodium Reduction Strategy for Canada


House of Commons


February 1, 2013

Ms. Libby Davies (Vancouver East, NDP)

Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise in the House today to begin the debate at second reading on Bill C-460, a sodium reduction bill for Canada.

I know that when we choose our private members’ bills a lot of thought goes into it because we basically get one shot at it. I did put a lot of thought into what I would bring forward for my private member’s bill. As the health critic for the official opposition for the NDP, I tried to think of a measure that would have a very significant impact in improving the health of Canadians.

After looking at a whole number of issues and talking with a lot of people, I decided that this was probably one of the single most important issues that could be brought forward because of the over-consumption of sodium in all of our diets. I selected the bill because there has already been an incredible amount of work done on a sodium reduction plan for Canada. The provinces and territories and experts have basically come together and said that we absolutely have to do something in terms of reducing the amount of sodium that Canadian ingest. That is why I brought forward the bill.

Over-consumption of sodium is a major contributor to heart attacks, strokes and other illnesses in Canada. In fact, Statistics Canada estimates that Canadians currently consume about 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day, which is more than double the recommended intake of 1,500 milligrams. It is estimated that 77% of the sodium consumed by Canadians comes from prepackaged food.

Anyone of us could go into a grocery store and see Canadians poring over labels and trying to figure out what it is that they are eating. People do want to make healthy choices, but the way things are constructed now and the amount of sodium that is in the food that we are eating is really quite astronomical.

The bill seeks to reduce sodium levels in the food supply by implementing the sodium reduction strategy for Canada. This is not a strategy that I came up with, it is a strategy that already exists. It was developed by the expert sodium working group in 2010. It was a group that was set up by the minister. Their report was released in 2010, but it has not yet been implemented by the federal government.

The core of my bill is to implement that strategy. The bill also prioritizes a number of areas where work needs to be done by ensuring that the amount of sodium in prepackaged and restaurant foods is reduced to safe levels. It will improve the labeling of sodium on foods. It will help protect children from being deceived by advertisements for high-sodium foods. Here I want to use Quebec as a model. Quebec has a very successful program around advertising as it affects children. This is a model that we should be using in all of Canada to protect children from the junk food and high-sodium content that they are ingesting without even knowing it.

The bill would establish the Government of Canada as the leader in monitoring and ensuring progress is being made by food companies to achieve sodium reduction plans. All the details about how this will be done are in the bill. It is very clearly laid out. As I say, the core of the bill is to implement the strategy, which already exists from 2010.

In developing the bill, I had tremendous support from across the country. I have been working with different organizations on the bill. I just want to quote from some of them.

Bill Jeffery, national coordinator of the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, has done incredible work on this issue over many years. In fact, he was a member of the sodium working group. In his press conference yesterday, he pointed out that this year as many as 16,000 Canadians will die needlessly of heart attacks, heart failure and strokes caused by excess dietary sodium, three-quarters of which is added to foods by food manufacturers and restaurants.

As well, the Canadian Medical Association and its president, Dr. Anna Reid, said:


    “Canadians consume an average of 3,400 milligrams of sodium daily, well above recommended levels. High sodium levels in food are responsible for almost one-third of hypertension cases in Canada. Hypertension is a major cause of heart disease (heart attack and heart failure), stroke and kidney failure, and it is an important contributor to premature death, disability and health care costs in Canada. It is estimated that 7.5 million Canadians have been diagnosed with this chronic condition, with an estimated 1,100 new patients being added every day.”

It goes on to say:


    “The Sodium Reduction Strategy for Canada Act is an important piece of legislation that can lead to healthier lives for all Canadians, and we urge all Members of Parliament to support it.”

One of the main advocates of action in this strategy for Canada has been Dr. Norm Campbell who is the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, Canadian Institutes for Health Research chair in hypertension and prevention and control. He is from the University of Calgary.

In his letter, he says:


    “The bill provides concrete measures for reducing the amount of salt food processors add to food. The measures proposed in the Bill include close government monitoring and oversight and mandatory labelling of foods that fail to comply with sodium targets. If passed, Bill C-460 will for the first time provide Canadians an opportunity to even know if they are even making a healthy or unhealthy food choice.”

He goes on at length about what is in the bill, but that is a particularly pertinent comment.

I also point out the breadth and depth of the work that has been done on this issue of sodium reduction. Some members in the House may remember that a year ago we all received a letter that was addressed to the Prime Minister and was signed by 17 major organizations across Canada, including the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Canadian Medical Association. That letter was a real convergence of medical and scientific individuals, experts and organizations who came together with a very significant letter to the Prime Minister. In their letter of January 2012, they said:


“—we are concerned that recent federal decisions not to endorse the federal, provincial and territorial sodium implementation report, presented at the November 2011 Health Ministers Summit meeting, will be seen as a signal to the food processing industry and food service establishments that our national government is not serious about the need to commit to the 2016, as well as interim, targets. The argument that the sodium implementation plan would fail to garner commitment from industry sends the clear message to Canadians that private interest takes precedence over food safety and [the] health and wellness [of Canadians]…”

This was a very thoughtful and well-worded message to the Prime Minister.

In addition, since we have been developing this bill and it was introduced a number of months ago, we now have close to 40 organizations and key experts across the country who are supporting it. They include: the Canadian Medical Association; the Canadian Public Health Association; the Dietitians of Canada; the Canadian Nurses’ Association; the Canadian Pharmacists Association; Public Health Physicians of Canada; Canadian Federation of Nurses Union; Hypertension Canada; the Kidney Foundation of Canada; Food Secure Canada; Canadian Institute for Child Health; Canadian Society of Internal Medicine; the Canadian Women’s Health Network.

I have just read a very few of the endorsers. These are organizations, and also a number of individuals, that have specifically endorsed this bill.

I am very interested to hear the comments of government members and of other opposition members. Rarely, in public discourse, is there a time when a number of different interests come together where there is a very strong consensus and that is what we have seen on sodium reduction. Let us remember that there was an expert working group put together by the Minister of Health. It produced a report by consensus. It was a unanimous report. It included industry representatives. That report came out and there was no follow-up from the government.   

In addition to that, the provinces and the territories, in their own meetings, have considered this issue. They too have called on the federal government to take action on implementing a sodium reduction strategy.

We see the body and the weight of all of these organizations across the country. It seems to me that we are at a particular time where there is a very broad consensus about the need to take serious action and to show we do put public health and public interests as the top priority. If this plan were implemented, there have been estimates that we could save something like $2 billion a year in health costs.

I am also concerned about the kids. We think about our kids and what they eat. I know many us here are parents who have young children and we do the best we can to make sure our children eat well; yet, it is so difficult to do with the array of products that are around us.

When we think about the health of our children as they grow into adults, sodium is not the only issue. There are many factors to a healthy lifestyle. There are things we can do ourselves, and that is certainly something that is part of the bill, by advocating for education and proper information and disclosure. However, it seems to me that the need to ensure there is a sodium reduction plan that is real, meaningful and takes proper steps is absolutely essential.

Many other countries have done this. The World Health Organization lists it as a priority. The sticking point is probably going to be whether it is voluntary or whether there is a plan that has clear target reductions, as my bill lays this out.

We have had a voluntary regime and opportunity now for many years, and frankly it has failed. It is now imperative that we see this as a public health issue that impacts all of Canada and all Canadians. The federal government must demonstrate its leadership and commitment to follow through on the incredible body of work and the plan being produced. That is a duty. It is a public responsibility, and anything less than that is a cop-out.

I want to argue today that continuing on some kind of voluntary path has not produced the results we need to see. The bill would move us in a direction to adopt the plan that was agreed to by the expert sodium working group. It is a reasonable proposition. The steps contained within it are reasonable, and I think it is achievable.

I would encourage all members of the House to not dismiss the bill because it has come from the opposition, but to look at the merits of the bill and who supports the bill. These organizations are non-partisan. They base their decisions on merit. They base their decisions about what they do on evidence, on medical information. When they say they are supporting the bill, maybe they do not agree with everything, every word—if it goes to committee, we will take a look at that—but the principle of the bill and what it is trying to do is there, and it is showing it has very broad support.

I am happy we are having this debate, and I look forward to the debate. I certainly encourage all members of the House, from all sides, to look at the bill in all seriousness. I want members to consider what we are here for and what we do to uphold public health, the public interest, to represent our constituents, and most of all, the future generation of kids, who we want to make sure have the best opportunity to grow up healthy in this wonderful country.