The recent government announcement of a sat fat reduction pledge as part of the Responsibility Deal has highlighted the weaknesses in the government’s approach to tackling rates of obesity and diet-related disease. With one in six people overweight or obese, a more ambitious approach is needed from the new public health minister.

“The government must show the Deal can deliver on multiple fronts”

On the plus side, it is good that reducing levels of sat fat in food, and ultimately rates of heart disease, is on the government and food industry radar. However the pledge, launched a couple of weeks ago, is typical of the slow and piecemeal approach of the Deal, which means it is still only an issue on some companies’ agendas. Several manufacturers and retailers have signed, but as with the calorie-reduction pledge, companies choose from a toolkit of approaches. It is entirely voluntary and nothing happens to those who don’t commit to anything not even bad publicity. All commitments are praised, but there is no shaming for those who fail to act.

Reducing sat fat levels in food is not simple. Unlike gradual salt reductions, it is not so easy to set cross-industry targets. But there is still a lot more the government can do to identify the key products that contribute to sat fat intakes and to drive change across the board. It needs to do the same for sugar, too.

And it is now time for the government to show the Deal can deliver on multiple fronts, delivering change across all food companies and tackling more contentious issues. It says it can deliver faster and further than through legislation - but it doesn’t seem that way.

The Deal has helped to encourage more calorie labelling in restaurants. Work is under way to establish new salt targets. This will be positive so long as they apply across a sufficient number of products and companies. For other pledges, it is more questionable whether action has resulted from the Deal. It can be argued that work to remove trans fats and promoting fruit & veg was already advanced, for example. The commitment by the main supermarkets and several manufacturers to traffic lights, while still a major achievement, was also more about the implementation of new EU labelling rules than the Deal. Slow and steady is not something we cannot afford. Our research shows, with budgets squeezed and food prices a major concern, that people want to healthier foods on promotion. Food promotions are the next issue on the agenda. With trade associations recently pulling out of the Scottish government’s initiative to ensure more responsible promotions, this will be a real test of the Deal but also an opportunity for the government to prove its credibility.

Sue Davies is chief policy adviser at Which?