A report from the UK government’s Public Health England (PHE) body has revealed a mixed picture when it comes to the food industry’s progress towards meeting salt reduction targets.

Progress towards meeting government targets was previously self-reported by the food industry. This is the first in-depth assessment using commercial data.

It found that for retailers and manufacturers just over half of all average salt reduction targets were met, with retailers making more progress than manufacturers.

Pressure group Action on Salt called the results a “national tragedy”.

But UK industry body Food and Drink Federation (FDF) said the report showed manufacturers had made “good progress”.

All average salt targets were met in nine food categories, including breakfast cereals and baked beans, PHE said. However, meat products met none and four in five foods had salt levels at or below the maximum targets set.

UK public health minister Steve Brine said: “While it is encouraging to see the food industry is making progress towards the salt reduction targets we set in 2014, we know there is more to do.

“That’s why we committed to further reducing salt intake in our prevention vision. Next year we will put forward realistic but ambitious goals and set out details of how we will meet them.”

Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at PHE, said: “While we have seen some progress, those that have taken little or no action cannot be excused for their inactivity. It is clear that, with the right leadership from industry, further salt reduction in foods continues to be possible.”

Kate Halliwell, head of UK diet and health policy at FDF said: “This report shows the good progress manufacturers have made under the ambitious salt reduction programme, with almost three quarters of foods falling below the maximum salt targets.

“FDF members have led the way in reducing salt in food. Voluntary action helped to reduce adult intakes by 11% between 2005/6 and 2014. And during the lifetime of the latest salt targets (2012 to 2017) our members have reduced salt by a further 11.4%, continuing to build on more than 15 years of steady reformulation work. This has been done without compromising on taste, quality or safety.

“Most ingredients in food perform a wide range of functions, and go well beyond adding flavour, such as providing texture or shelf-life. This means taking anything out of food (through reformulation), be it salt, sugar or calories, is not straightforward. Nevertheless, we recognise there is more to be done and manufacturers remain committed to the government’s various reformulation programmes.”

But Professor Graham MacGregor, chair of the pressure group Action on Salt, was scathing in his reaction to the report’s findings. He said: “Such poor progress in PHE’s attempt to reduce salt intake is a national tragedy. This report confirms what we know already – that voluntary targets need comprehensive monitoring and guidance but this has been completely lacking from PHE. As a result, thousands of unnecessary strokes and heart attacks have occurred and billions of pounds wasted by the NHS and tragically more than 4,000 premature deaths per year have occurred.” 

Set by the government in 2014, the most recent targets cover 28 food categories for the food industry to achieve by 2017. These categories include bread, crisps and ready meals.

Companies were asked to meet average and maximum targets for salt content per 100g, with the maximum targets ranging from 0.13g in canned vegetables to 3.75g in curry pastes. The foods covered by the programme provide more than half the salt in the nation’s diet.

The UK government has committed to setting out the next steps for salt reduction by Easter 2019.

In May, it was revealed that UK firms had fallen short of meeting sugar reduction goals.