The newly aggressive language coming out of the DH over the Responsibility Deal is as nothing to the tough talking that lies ahead, says Ian Quinn

The marriage may not be heading for divorce just yet but the industry’s apparent honeymoon with health ­secretary Andrew Lansley is over.

The coalition’s Responsibility Deal, built around voluntary measures by retailers to combat alcohol abuse and obesity, had widespread buy-in. But its latest move has left retailers asking just what it means by ‘voluntary’, with more contentious decisions ahead this autumn.

Lansley’s decision this weekend to ‘name and shame’ retailers including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, M&S, Morrisons, the Co-op, Waitrose and Aldi, came despite retailers claiming to have met all their pledges to date. Yet in a letter to each company, Lansley said they should be doing more to drive the Deal forward.

“We were surprised to see the letter and even more surprised at the language coming out from the DH,” says Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the BRC. “It’s so unfortunate because it’s been written to those who have been full square behind the deal.”

Only Asda escaped criticism, with praise heaped on the company for its move to remove all alcohol promotions from front of stores, announced when Lansley’s plans came out in March.

Westminster sources told The Grocer that ministerial patience was “wearing thin” at supermarket inactivity on the back of the Deal, with a DH source describing the Walmart chain as a “lone ranger”.

Yet at the last count, retailers have completed the roll-out of DH-approved alcohol labels on more than 1,700 products. They expect to have launched 40 community alcohol partnerships across England by the end of the year; and more than £1.5m in cash and many more millions in benefits in kind have gone to the Drinkaware charity, launched in 2008 by the drinks industry. On the food side, retail chains have confirmed the removal of all artificial transfats from own-brand products, and from September thousands of retailers’ cafés will display new calorie information to shoppers.

“It’s great that Asda has taken measures on top of what’s been agreed but that’s been an individual decision,” says Opie. “But people could have been forgiven for thinking that all the other retailers had reneged on their promises.”

Experts believe the government’s change of tack is aimed at winning back support from the health lobby, after a raft of influential groups walked away. The DH told The Grocer it was planning moves which would “go much further and demand more commitment and action on the part of the industry”. It also confirmed it hoped to sign up NGOs that have snubbed the strategy.

Among measures to be discussed by the working groups of retailers and NGOs set up by Lansley are a new set of pledges due to be revealed in the autumn.

These are likely to include plans for all supermarkets to agree to a Scottish-style model, which would limit alcohol to one area of the store, with major implications for seasonal marketing strategies and retailer freedom full stop. Other proposals include banning high-alcohol drinks from being placed next to less potent products. Such a proposal would in effect need its own enforcement and could become a Trading Standards matter hardly the sort of voluntary deal retailers would relish.

The Deal is also set to ramp up the pressure for retailers to do more to cut obesity, with the government seeking commitments that retailers will put a much bigger slice of marketing spend towards healthy food such as fruit & veg. It will also demand further commitments to cut salt content.

But retailers point out there are glaring holes in the strategy, not least because Lansley has failed to win the sign-up of thousands of smaller companies and has been widely ignored by the hospitality sector.

“Does it have an engagement plan?” questions Opie. “It’s all very well getting the top seven or eight retailers and the top seven or eight food companies but we have yet to see a clear plan of how they intend to get others to sign up to these pledges.”

One-off pledges:

Asda: Ban on all alcohol foyer displays since April
Heineken: remove 100 million units of alcohol from UK market by 2013
Tesco: Backing of Race for Life event in partnership with Cancer Research UK
Nestlé: Occupational health initiative to encourage healthy workplaces
Mars UK/Unilever: to work with SMEs to help promote health and wellbeing