The Food Standards Agency has been warned it risks driving an upsurge in cases of botulism through its campaign to reduce salt levels in food.

Salt-reduction targets on cured meats, ham and bacon were not only “totally unrealistic”, but also presented a serious threat to public health, Claire Cheney, director general of the Provision Trade Federation said.

“The shelf life of vacuum-packed ham has already had to be reduced by a week to comply with nitrate reduction regulation. This will force us to reduce it further and with that come serious food-safety concerns, not least the risk of botulism.”

Ham manufacturers have been told to reduce salt content to just 1.75g per 100g by 2012, a reduction of 30% on the current 2010 target.

Harsher salt reduction targets have also been set for bread, ready meals, cakes, dairy, cooking sauces, crisps and snacks.

The FSA fended off the concerns, claiming manufacturers would have the opportunity to raise any technical issues during a public consultation.

“Based on information from the meetings we held with industry, the levels that have already been achieved in the market and the most recent urinary analysis, we have proposed revised targets,” said an FSA spokesperson. “We welcome evidence-based submissions from industry on any concerns they have.”

Suppliers, however, warned the agency it faced alienating the entire food industry if it continued to pursue targets that many regard as unachievable.

“The new targets are absolutely staggering,” said Jim Winship, chairman of the British Sandwich Association. “We’re already in a situation where consumers are complaining about the blandness of sandwiches. We’ll soon reach a stage where they stop buying sandwiches altogether and make them at home where the FSA can’t monitor salt content.”

Winship accused the FSA of “losing touch with reality”, adding that consultations with the industry had been disregarded in the FSA’s new guidelines, published this week.

“The new guidelines seem like an arbitrary decision without any scientific basis. I can’t see any evidence for them. If the FSA is not careful, the industry will just give up reformulation efforts altogether.”

The FSA claims the current average daily salt intake for UK adults is 8.6g, well short of its target of 6g. It believes hitting this target could prevent an average of 20,200 premature deaths a year linked to excessive salt intake.

But suppliers are concerned meeting the targets could damage sales.

“What’s the incentive to reformulate when we’re getting more and more complaints about taste which will result in falling sales,” said Kaarin Goodburn, secretary general of the Chilled Food Association.

The revised guidelines coincide with the announcement of a new initiative, spearheaded by the Advertising Association, to tackle obesity. Mars, Cadbury, Kellogg’s and PepsiCo are among food companies who have joined forces with retail, media, advertising, fitness and healthcare businesses, along with the government, to promote healthier eating. Together, they will invest over £275m to improve the nation’s diet.