On average, adults in Ireland are eating around nine grams of salt a day, 50 per cent more than the recommended six grams; and bread provides a quarter of this excess.
The other two biggest culprits are meat at 20 per cent and breakfast cereals at five per cent, though as a food category processed foods are the worst offenders, accounting for around 75 per cent of excess salt intake.
"We're looking for around a third reduction in salt intake. To do that we have to tackle processed foods and one of those is clearly bread," said Dr. Wayne Anderson, chief specialist in food science at the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI).
At the end of November, the FSAI will publish a report focused on how to increase efforts to tackle the salt problem. The authority previously struck a deal with the Irish Bread Bakers Association (IBBA) back in January this year, agreeing that IBBA members would cut salt levels by five per cent.
But the FSAI wants to speed up the process. "They need to go further than five per cent and we're aiming for 10 per cent by the end of the year. I think we'll see an acceleration of things in 2005," said Anderson, who added that some companies had already achieved a 10 per cent reduction.
Although exact figures and dates still have to be discussed, Anderson indicated that the FSAI would be looking to cut salt levels by at least another 10 per cent in the next few years.
The IBBA has co-operated with the FSAI on reducing salt levels, but the association has called for a gradual process, fearing that cutting down on salt too quickly will alienate consumers by the sudden change of taste in products.
Anderson said the industry should take advantage of the current relaxed negotiations in Ireland compared to the more heavy-handed policy being applied in the UK: "It's in the industry's interest to do as well as they can voluntarily and we would prefer this approach," he said, without wishing to speculate on the alternative.
Making sure the food industry has the proper equipment for measuring salt, and the re-labelling of sodium as a "salt equivalent" on product packaging, are two other areas in which the FSAI is keen to see progress.
Salt is made up of a mixture of sodium and chloride and, as a result, salt is often labelled as sodium on food packaging. Anderson said this had to stop because "if consumers can't see what the real salt content is, then they can't do much about cutting down in their diets".
Traditional Irish soda bread carries the largest amount of excess salt in products, with a sodium content of 2.3 grams in every 100 grams.
The renewed pressure on the bakery industry from the FSAI follows on from the Irish Heart Foundation's (IHF) recent Irish Heart Week, which saw the launch of the IHF's 'time to cut down on salt' campaign.
Dr. Will Fennell, IHF President and cardiologist, called for joint government and industry action at the launch of the campaign: "The IHF, the Department of Health and Children, the food and retail industry and other key players need to raise awareness about salt consumption and to provide better education on food labelling and sources of salt.
"A diet high in salt can increase blood pressure levels and in turn increase risk of heart attack or stroke. If everyone in Ireland reduced their salt intake by a half teaspoon we could prevent about 900 deaths each year from these diseases," said Fennell.
The IHF unveiled a survey during the week which claimed that 55 per cent of secondary students aged over 14 years didn't know that six grams of salt, about one teaspoon, was the daily recommended allowance for an adult.
But as yet there is no sign of a salt-slashing awareness campaign similar to that being run by the Food Standards Agency in the UK, although the IHF campaign has received tacit support from the Irish government.
Speaking at the launch of Irish Heart Week, Ivor Callely, Irish state minister for the Department of Health and Children, said that he "looked forward to considering the advice" of the FSAI before setting any national policy. He added that any reduction in salt levels would require the co-operation of many agencies, including the food industry.