More than 170 signatories have committed to voluntary pledges under the Responsibility Deal, but what practical results can be expected, asks Hannah Stodell

After months of deliberation, the government has delivered details of its Responsibility Deal, and listed 170 signatories, including all the leading supermarkets, and major food and drink manufacturers.

But withdrawal of support from key health groups in the days leading up to its publication on the grounds it was all carrot and no stick cast doubt over the initiative’s credibility.

So how onerous is the deal for stakeholders? And how will companies be held to account?

Looking at collective pledges for example salt reduction the DH has reiterated the FSA’s 2012 salt targets revised in 2009. Although this should curb intakes from the current average daily intake of 8.6g to 7.6g in 2012, campaign group Consensus Action on Salt & Health dubs this “disappointing” and a long way off the maximum 6g public health recommendation.

But Food Network chairwoman Susan Jebb says the commitment on salt shouldn’t be underestimated: “Although people will say this is just what the FSA were doing, before there wasn’t a commitment from industry. That’s a significant change.”

Jebb adds that food pledges will be under scrutiny using specific evaluation tools such as annual sodium monitoring via Kantar, a urinary sodium survey and a National Diet and Nutrition Survey on transfats reporting later this year.

The deal’s strategy on alcohol is also controversial. Drinks giants Diageo, Carlsberg and SAB Miller are among those committing to clear unit labelling on more than 80% of alcoholic drinks by 2013, boosting awareness campaigns and developing a new sponsorship code on responsible drinking.

However, half a dozen groups, including Alcohol Concern and the British Medical Association who were previously involved in the Deal refused to sign up because of “serious reservations”.

“There are no firm targets or sanctions if the drinks industry fails to fulfil its pledges. It’s all carrot and no stick for the industry and supermarkets,” says Alcohol Concern chief executive Don Shenker.

Health secretary Andrew Lansley also insists that accountability and transparency will be provided by a requirement across the food, alcohol, physical activity and health at work networks for partner companies to publish progress updates in their annual corporate reporting and feed this back annually to DH. They will also be obliged to provide further data to aid any independent evaluation, while DH will publish details of all those signed up and where consumers can track their progress.

Some may choose to go further. Asda, for example, will remove alcohol from foyers by the end of April to reduce “impulse purchases” and is investing £1m to tackle alcohol problems among young people through a partnership with the charity AddAction. Heineken has pledged to remove 100 million units of alcohol annually from the UK by lowering the strength of one of its six major brands by 2013.

Removing alcohol from prime spots will have an impact, says Kantar Worldpanel director Giles Quick, but pricing has a bigger part to play. However, leveraging price in alcohol is difficult because of the lack of substitutability of the product. “If I increase the price of peas dramatically you’ll buy beans or sweetcorn, perhaps, but if I increase the price of alcohol dramatically what do you buy?” he says, adding stronger intervention is ­ultimately the most compelling way to drive consumer change.

So has the deal gone far enough? No, says Mark Hunter, CEO of Molson Coors. “Below tax selling was a tentative first step. This is slightly less tentative. I’m encouraged that an alcohol strategy is starting to emerge. Taxation measures and other voluntary agreements will also need to be made. But we are headed in the right direction.”

10 main pledges 1. Calorie information on food and non-alcoholic drink out of home from 1 September
2. Salt cut by extra 15% from 2010 targets (hitting FSA 2012 goal).
3. Transfats removed from food by end of 2011
4. 80% of alcoholic drinks on shelf to be labelled with unit content, NHS guidelines and pregnant warning, by December 2013
5. Simple, consistent information about alcohol units in on-trade
6. Ditto off-trade
7. Challenge 21/25 schemes in on- and off-trade vigorously enforced
8. Back Drinkaware Trust to 2013
9. New ad and promotion code
10. Support community schemes tackling alcohol harm