Last week I posted about an email “conversation” with Heinz Canada about the high sodium content of their soups, which lead me to the discovery that they were making incorrect health claims on their website. They state that their tomato juice “is endorsed by the Heart & Stroke Foundation’s Health Check™ logo”, but upon further inspection, it has too much sodium to meet the requirements of the Health Check program. I emailed both the Heart and Stroke Foundation (they run the Health Check program) and Heinz about this finding, and I heard back from the Heart and Stroke Foundation within a couple of days. I have yet to hear back from Heinz. Here is the H&S Foundation reply:

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“Dear Elsbeth,

Thanks for your question concerning Heinz products and the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s Health Check program.

You are correct that the Health Check criteria for sodium for vegetable juice has been reduced from 650 mg to 480 mg per 250 mL, as of November 1, 2010 – a 25% reduction. We will be in touch with Heinz to remind it to update the nutrition information on its site to reflect the new criteria. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

Only products that meet the Health Check nutrient criteria can display the logo. When criteria are revised, products must be reformulated in order to continue displaying the logo. An independent lab carries out random audits annually to ensure compliance. Because the logo is associated with a specific grocery product not a company, there is no percentage requirement for companies to meet. However, only products that meet the Health Check criteria can display the logo on-pack or in any marketing materials.

Health Check has developed clear guidelines around the use of its logo and we ensure these guidelines are followed as we know it is a symbol that consumers rely on and trust.

Again, thank you for taking the time to write and I hope I have answered your questions.”

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I was actually impressed at this answer. It is real and it provides an answer, unlike the collection of words with no collective meaning that I originally received back from Heinz. I was in the process of writing a thank you letter back, when I decided to do a little more checking. Mainly I was curious about how successful their audit process was. Were there other non-compliances, or did I just happen to find the one delinquent? Here’s the letter that I just sent back to the H&S Foundation that summarizes my approach and findings:

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“Thanks for the reply. It is good to hear that you do audit products for their claims. Can I ask what your audit level is, and whether you typically find any/many false or incorrect claims? When you find out that a company is making false or incorrect claims, what is your process? Is it a simple reminder, or is there actually a process that forces them to stop using the symbol? Is there any sort of repercussion? I guess what I’m getting at, is whether there is any motivation for companies to actually follow the rules, or do they just wait to be caught and then slowly make changes? The latter seems to be the approach that many Canadian regulatory bodies take (I have recently been involved in a manufactured product labelling assessment where we found the majority of products on the shelves were not in compliance with legislated regulations).

In fact, I just did a quick check of my own. I picked a few products from the listing on your website, and then checked to see if they comply. I will claim that I picked them randomly, but I went with products that had corporate websites with published nutritional values, so not entirely random. Here’s what I found:

    Uncle Ben’s Bistro Express LONG GRAIN & WILD – ROASTED CHICKEN FLAVOUR. Health Check requires 480mg or less of sodium per 140g (prepared) serving and per on-pack serving. Their corporate website shows 690 mg per on-pack serving of 90g, which is already above the requirement, and then factoring in for the serving size, they are would be at 1073mg – 124% above your requirement! http://www.unclebens.ca/en-ca/products/bistro_express/long_grain_wild_roasted_chicken_flavour.aspx. Now to their credit, they do not seem to have the Health Check logo on their product, but you still have it listed on your website.
    – Campbell’s Bean with Bacon soup. Don’t get me wrong. I love bacon. But I can’t possibly imagine there’s a healthy product that is built on bacon. Turns out I am right. According to your website criteria, soup should have 480 mg or less of sodium per 250 mL serving and per on-pack serving. According to their corporate website, this soup has 860mg of sodium. The serving size is not listed, but in my experience soup serving sizes are 250 mL, so I think that is a fair assumption, and the 160 calories would fit in that range. That means this is 80% above the Health Check requirement.
    – Life Choices Betteroni Mini Pizza. This one seems to make the grade! I couldn’t find their “Betteroni” one listed, but I did find the Veggie and the Cheese ones, and both list serving sizes of 105 g, and 345 and 320 mg of sodium respectively. Scaled up to 140mg, both are under the requirements. It also meets the fat, trans fat and minimum protein requirements. Good to see!
    – The Commensal Mexican Chili pizza also meets the stated requirements. Interesting that the food that appears least healthy seems most likely to fit the minimum health requirements.
    – Stouffer’s Barbecue Chicken. This one also meets the requirements. Now I personally would suggest that 720 mg of sodium per 250 g serving should not be considered an adequate requirement for healthy, but that is a separate issue. And this product is well below at 540.
    – Hormel’s Silverado Stagg Beef Chili with Beans. Requirement is for 720 mg of sodium per 250 g serving. The corporate website shows 860 mg per 247 g, which is only 21% above the requirements, but still above them.

So my quick review shows 50% non-compliance to your requirements. I realize this is not scientific, as a sample of 7 should not be considered representative (these 6 plus the Heinz tomato juice). But it is still alarming that I’ve found 4/7 products to be non-compliant, and that some of them are grossly non-compliant.

I think you will agree that you have a problem. I would be happy to work with you if you need assistance in correcting this problem.

Thanks again for the clear answer to my previous question, and my apologies for dumping new problems on your lap. Of course that’s not an entirely sincere apology, as I will be happy if this can help people eat more healthily without confusion.

Sincerely,

Elsbeth”

Note the slip in offer of helping them fix their problem. What can I say? I’ve got a long history of offering consulting services. 🙂 Personally I find this a little bit exciting, as I’ve long been frustrated by the high levels of sodium in processed foods. We’ve seen healthy eating trends that have pitted fat as the root of all evil, then it was carbs, then it was trans fats. I think sodium should be welcomed to join that crowd.

I will be sure to keep you posted on any progress…

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