First it was ads. Then came health. Now it seems the government is turning up the heat on the environmental front, as the minister of state for local environment Ben Bradshaw called this week for shoppers to dump food packaging at supermarket checkouts.

Reporting on the Waste Resources Action Programme's Courtauld Commitment, signed last year by 13 food retailers, Bradshaw (pictured with Wrap chief executive Jennie Price) said the multiples needed to do more to tackle excessive food packaging.

As well as calling for shoppers to strip excess packaging from products and leave it at checkouts, he said consumers should report examples of excessive packaging to Trading Standards and warned the government would consider regulation if supermarkets did not act voluntarily.

"Until the supermarkets demonstrate clearly they are willing to lead by example we cannot expect consumers to get fully engaged with reducing their own waste,"

he said.

So has the environment become the government's new stick with which to beat the industry?

Since 2004, there has been widespread criticism of the government for viewing the food and drink industry as a soft target in its effort to fight the nation's flab. Now, with Tony Blair's latest pronouncements on climate change, it seems certain the industry could once again be the primary focus of its attention.

"Big retailers are everyone's whipping boys," says Richard Dodd, head of media and campaigns, British Retail Consortium. "Supermarkets have a high profile and touch most people's lives, so it is easy to focus on them."

Though about 40% of household waste originates from retail or convenience stores, the biggest sectors for waste are construction, mining and quarrying, according to Dodd. "But these industries are not attacked because few people are aware of them. Everyone is aware of retail. It is unfair."

Even Bradshaw concedes the increase is not entirely the fault of the supermarkets. He also blames demographic changes, particularly the increase in single households and a shift in the type of food sold, including ready meals and premium products.

But the industry was, unsurprisingly, quick to criticise Bradshaw's call for consumers to dump packaging at the checkout, a gimmick resonant of the Women's Institute's high profile campaign this June.

Bradshaw's suggestions were "understandable but misguided". says Mark Shayler, MD of Eco3. "Wrong," says the BRC more bluntly, while the Food and Drink Federation says it "would not necessarily go down that route" and Asda describes the comments as "not particularly helpful". Wrap itself advised shoppers to use "other feedback mechanisms" to tell retailers of their concerns.

The industry insists it is tackling the issue (see left). But even the most proactive packaging reduction strategy won't do away with the need for packaging altogether, Sainsbury's chief executive, Justin King, told The Grocer. "The vast majority serves a useful purpose in preserving the quality and condition of food. We do not think we have a problem as we have set the bar high in checking that we do not have excess packaging.

"The key message around packaging and plastic bags is recycling and reusability. We are the largest user of compostable packaging in Europe, which is a great demonstration of that."

Nevertheless, Wrap is calling for further action. "Consumers are making a significant contribution to tackling waste by embracing recycling. We are now looking to retailers to step up and play their part by helping to design out waste before it happens," says Price.

The industry is a long way off target, adds a spokeswoman. "To date, the Courtauld Commitment signatories have delivered a 35,000 tonne reduction in packaging. The targets, however, require a 160,000 tonne reduction by 2008 and a 340,000 tonne reduction by 2010. So we are only 10% of the way to the 2010 target."

Wrap plans to hold a series of round table meetings with retailers on food waste, biopolymers and compostable packaging, and consistent on-pack recycling information.

The government is unlikely to stop at packaging, warns Shayler. "Supermarkets are an easy target, but a valid one. The key issues at the moment are packaging, local sourcing and waste, but chemical safety and climate change will also come into the equation." n