Manager Michael Upton adds salt to a customer's fish and chips at Mr Fish restaurant in north London May 22, 2012. Deep-fried fish in a crispy batter with fat golden chips is still as popular as ever with the British public, ranked alongside roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and chicken tikka masala as the nation's favourite dish. Picture taken May 22, 2012. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh (BRITAIN - Tags: FOOD SOCIETY) ATTENTION EDITORS: PICTURE 13 OF 29 FOR PACKAGE 'AS BRITISH AS FISH AND CHIPS'. SEARCH 'EDDIE FISH' TO FIND ALL IMAGES

South Africans will have to get used to less salty food if the national Department of Health has its way.

Foods that could have their salt content drastically reduced in the next four years include bread, milk, butter spreads, snacks, breakfast cereals and processed meats, including sausages.

According to draft regulations to the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act, published in the Government Gazette recently, food manufacturers have until June 2016 to comply with the first set of sodium (table salt) targets.

Professor Melvyn Freeman, director of non-communicable diseases at the department, said salt was responsible for most non-communicable diseases, which were on the increase in SA, particularly hypertension.

Freeman said the number of South Africans with hypertension – 6.3 million – was one of the highest in the world.

The World Health Organisation recommended a daily intake of salt at 5g (about a teaspoon), but studies showed that some South Africans were taking as much as 40g of salt a day – increasing the risk of hypertension, he said.

According to the proposed regulations, food such as bread, cheese, olives and processed meat and sun-dried tomatoes would have a maximum of 400mg per 100g when the regulation took effect, while all breakfast cereals, including ready-to-eat hot oats and instant porridge, would have 500mg per 100g. Savoury snacks would be allowed more salt, at 750mg per 100g, while dry soups and dry noodles would be allowed a maximum of 550mg per 100g.

Freeman said those that didn’t comply could face penalties, including up to 24 months imprisonment. He said it was important that manufacturers complied, because many South Africans didn’t have much choice, given that 60 percent of salt was already contained in the food.

Some companies have reportedly raised concerns about the drastic drop in salt content over concerns that it might result in changes in quality, but others have welcomed the proposals.

Tjaart Kruger, chief executive of Premier Foods SA, said: “We are supportive of regulations to ensure an informed consumer and a level playing field for all producers.

“Governmental efforts around the world to reduce the level of salt consumption through concerted engagements with the food industry have yielded positive results.

Bongiwe Njobe, group executive for sustainability at Tiger Brands, was also “supportive” of reduced salt intake in foods.

Food manufacturers had four years to comply, but Freeman said they could start reducing salt content gradually. - Cape Argus