The government's new Responsibility Deal food network will not put corporate partners in the driving seat on public health, health secretary Andrew Lansley told delegates at The Grocer's Food & Health conference this week.

NGOs and lobbyists have accused the government of "giving industry the car keys on public health" through initiatives such as Change4Life.

But Lansley told delegates that other actions would be "designed, developed and delivered by government and the public sector to improve public health and reduce inequalities", citing the new below-cost alcohol measures as an example of action that was outside the context of the responsibility deal.

"This isn't about giving business power or control. The boundaries have been made very clear."

But Lansley also argued for the vital role of industry in promoting long-term behavioural change, citing Change4Life's c-store fruit & veg programme as a good example of a win-win for consumers and businesses.

And while regulation could have a role, imposing change from above was an "abdication of responsibility" and would fail, he said. It must be carefully deployed and delivered alongside industry efforts to innovate, educate palates and change the public's mindset. "Plenty of companies participating in the Responsibility Deal say they can do it."

The food network's progress would also be held to account. "We'll report publicly on how many companies are participating so the public can see which companies are embracing the challenge. We'll gauge the progress on each of the pledges."

Lansley also said the Responsibility Deal would be made as inclusive as possible, and was looking to extend the power of the Change4Life brand by engaging local authorities to develop and implement public health improvement strategies within this framework.

"Local authorities would be well advised to put their health improvement resources into Change4Life.

"I am also keen for it to develop into a movement with a social media and online presence, something that is much more of a local call to action," he added.

"Clearly we want the business community progressively to join but the intention is that it should be, as time goes on, a more inclusive process." The push, he said, must also come from people who were neither business or government but were approaching it from a scientific or health standpoint."

Lansley added that ­government needed to equip consumers with better-quality information. "There is no point giving people information [about their health] if you don't help as well."

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The Grocer’s health and food debate to be broadcast by BBC (24 January 2011)