The government has dropped plans for a clampdown on the promotion of products high in fat, salt or sugar in stores, after retailers refused to sign up to sweeping measures mooted under its Responsibility Deal.

Ministers also wanted retailers to agree to price and reward-based incentives on healthier options, but minutes of a recent Responsibility Deal meeting released this week revealed supermarkets had failed to reach a consensus and claimed a voluntary pledge would not work on such a “commercially sensitive” issue.

Instead, the DH has said it will allow retailers to take a lead with “individual initiatives”, such as Lidl’s Healthy Checkouts initiative, Tesco’s Using Our Scale for Good programme and Morrisons’ ‘Healthier Choices’ trial, in the hope it will encourage others to follow suit.

“Discussions to date have indicated that it will be difficult to identify one set of actions that will form the basis of a collective effort that would take us significantly forward in this area,” said the DH report. “We will look specifically to action by businesses to rebalance their advertising, marketing and promotion.”

Health groups reacted angrily to what they see as the latest climbdown. “These are very important measures and I can’t see how the government can justify dropping them,” said Children’s Food Campaign co-ordinator Malcolm Clark.

“There have been some positive moves but they have not gone anywhere near far enough. Recently the chief medical officer has talked about obesity being normalised and that’s why it’s so important to tackle this obesogenic environment in stores.”