In a letter responding to earlier submissions from the industry this year for strategies to cut salt levels, the health minister Melanie Johnson wrote to over twenty food players - among them Kerry Foods, Heinz, Sainsbury, and McDonalds - warning them they had until September to come back with a better plan to beat the 'unacceptably high levels of salt'.
"The plans in general are too often short on detail and specific actions," said Johnson. "What is needed are commitments across the board for key product categories," she added, stunning the industry.
"We are astonished," a spokesperson from the UK Food and Drink Federation told FoodNavigator.com.
"These are misleading suggestions of lack of cooperation and lack of progress on salt reduction in processed foods.
The whole industry has pulled together to work with the government on improving the nation's health," said the FDF.
As a measure of their fury, the British Retail Consortium, the British Hospitality Association and the FDF quickly responded yesterday with a vociferous letter to Johnson's boss, Health Secretary John Reid, deploring "inept political spin which has nothing to do with real attempts to improve the nation's health."
In response to consumer and government pressure the food industry has worked closely with the UK government's Food Standards Agency (FSA) to slash salt levels in food - high levels linked to high blood pressure and heart disease - to help consumers stay within the recommended 6 gram adult daily intake.
And in a general shake-up last May the FDF set up an industry-wide programme to reduce salt - or more precisely sodium - in breakfast cereals, soups and sauces.
The industry committed itself to meeting a target of a 10 per cent reduction in sodium levels in ambient soups and sauces by the end of 2003. 'Furthermore, and subject to consumer acceptance, it will push for further, similar reductions in this sector in 2004 and 2005,' the FDF said last year, stressing that the UK food and drink industry had already worked hard to cut sodium levels in these products over the last few years - salt levels in breakfast cereals have been cut by 16 per cent since 1998.
But Ms Johnson wrote telling the companies that salt levels should be cut by up to 45 per cent in products such as sausages, beefburgers, bread and breakfast cereals.
"From the plans submitted around 50 per cent of the products, such as pizzas and ready meals, will continue to contain unacceptably high levels of salt."
Outraged, the FDF told FoodNavigator.com that the industry has been 'pulling out all the stops and has made great improvements in working to reduce salt,' stressing that the food industry wants to be in a position where it can work constructively with the government.
Among the many firms surprised by the government move, Heinz said in a statement this week that it 'will reduce the salt content in baked beans this summer, planning to reduce levels by 15 per cent across the rest of its range in 2005 and thereby moving its products to below the government's 0.875 per cent target.'
Other companies targeted by the UK minister include Iceland, Marks & Spencer, Cadbury Schweppes, Nestle, ASDA, Safeway, United Biscuits and Unilever.