Food and drink companies are being sidelined in the debate over obesity, with a new study showing opinion formers and policymakers regard them as increasingly irrelevant and untrustworthy.

The research, carried out by Populus among nearly 200 politicians and more than 100 leading stakeholders from organisations such as the DH, Defra, regulatory bodies and leading health NGOs, claimed supermarkets were seen as far more important in setting the agenda and were likely to be the main vehicle for change.

Tackling obesity was regarded as the most important issue facing the sector, above prices, employment and sustainability, with nearly 31% of those that took part choosing it as the number one issue.

But when asked which food manufacturer was best placed to address the big issues, a quarter of respondents answered ‘none,’ with a further 9% saying it was down to supermarkets rather than food manufacturers.

The survey also found reduced faith in food manufacturers to tackle the obesity crisis, with 62% saying they did not think they took the responsibility seriously, compared with 46% who gave the same answer to the survey in 2011.

Meanwhile, there appears to be a growing number of MPs from across the political spectrum expressing a desire for more regulation. The survey found that under a future Conservative government, 50% of MPs would regard stricter regulation as “essential”, rising to 59% under a Labour government, and 52% if the current coalition remained in power.

“Increasingly, the health lobby and politicians are drawing supermarkets into the obesity debate,” said the report. “More than ever before, the major supermarkets are willing to be seen as taking a lead in curbing obesity. “The risk for food manufacturers will be that their ability to manage the obesity debate is taken out of their hands.”

David Racadio, head of syndicated research at Populus, added: “We have noted an intensification of the rhetoric and emotion involved in the obesity debate as well as a broadening of the participants involved in the debate - including supermarkets. While food manufacturers are likely to welcome a wide coalition of support including government, healthcare providers, educators and retailers in tackling obesity, they may find themselves somewhat sidelined as the other parties to the debate appear to be more willing to move faster and further than many food manufacturers have, to date, been prepared to go.”