UK Responsibility Deal formed to tackle rising obesity - but is facing criticism

UK Responsibility Deal formed to tackle rising obesity - but is facing criticism

A recent critical report on the UK's Public Health Responsibility Deal food pledges casts a dark cloud over a policy initiative hardly bathing in the warmth of widespread approval.

The report, from the Policy Innovation Research Unit (PIRU) at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, says some of the Responsibility Deal undertakings could, if fully implemented, contribute to improving diets.

However, it adds the implementation of the pledges has been "difficult to establish" owing to the "paucity and heterogeneity" of progress reports, warranting efforts to "greatly improve progress reporting both in terms of internal consistency and inclusion of metrics". The report also suggests "most interventions reported by organisations seemed either clearly or possibly already underway regardless of the RD".

These conclusions may appear dismal reading for those seeking to make the Responsibility Deal work, but Susan Jebb, Professor of Diet and Population Health at Oxford University's Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences and chair of the Public Health Responsibility Deal Food Network, remains upbeat about what the Responsibility Deal is achieving and can yet deliver.

"Overall, I welcome the evaluation and I am delighted to have the achievements recognised in a way which often hasn't been the case prior to this," Prof. Jebb says. "A huge amount has been done under the Responsibility Deal which probably wouldn't have happened otherwise and some work has continued, and may otherwise have stopped."

Prof. Jebb's defence notwithstanding, the report's findings hardly represent a resounding endorsement of either the voluntary principle behind the Responsibility Deal or its achievements. "This independent report proves what we have long suggested, that the RD is not working in the best interests of people, but of business," Katharine Jenner, campaign director for Action on Sugar, tells just-food.

As Jenner's comments underline, the report speaks to the Responsibility Deal's credibility as a policy initiative. Whatever it may or may not have achieved, the gulf between what government and industry stakeholders say about the Responsibility Deal and how it is viewed by campaigners and many public health professionals is now wider than ever. For a policy supposedly embodying multi-stakeholder engagement and cooperation as a defining tenet, this is hardly ideal.

However, in spite of the criticism it has received, the Responsibility Deal should not be viewed as a vain endeavour. As part of an overall strategy to tackle obesity and diet-related health problems, such voluntary commitments have a role to play, but the 2010-2015 government was arguably guilty of placing too much emphasis on the Responsibility Deal at the expense of other policy options. "We need a broad portfolio of policies," says Prof. Jebb, who has for instance expressed support for a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

A degree of healthy scepticism on the part of campaigners regarding voluntary corporate action is understandable and even desirable but they should at the same time be striving to make the Responsibility Deal work by engaging in the process fully and pushing industry to move further and faster. Meanwhile, companies that genuinely wish to be part of the solution, and show their commitments to responsible business are not lip service, cannot afford to see a policy which places such a strong onus on voluntary action founder.

It is heartening that, in spite of her reservations, Jenner holds out some qualified hope for the Responsibility Deal. "It is not fit for purpose in its current form, but there is still a chance for redemption," Jenner says, "and in fact there has to be if we are to tackle the ever growing problems with obesity and diet-related illnesses."

Jenner urges UK Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt to "listen to what all its stakeholders - both health experts and food industry - are saying".

Among the improvements required, Jenner suggests the Responsibility Deal needs to have "better and more transparent accountability" and more information sharing to help smaller companies. She also believes the setting of collective industry targets for sugar reduction would be a welcome enhancement. At present, the Responsibility Deal only includes a general calorie reduction pledge through which to address sugar content.

However, Prof. Jebb doubts a specific sugar reduction pledge would be as effective in accelerating change as some campaigners believe. "It would be perfectly possible to develop a specific pledge on sugar reduction, but I suspect it will only bring modest additional gains. There are lots of pledges under the heading of calorie reduction which specifically focus on reducing sugar, whether it's reformulation of SSBs [sugar-sweetened beverages] or portion size cuts in confectionery."

The Responsibility Deal has also been unable so far to deliver a collective pledge on responsible food promotion, which has been identified as a weakness by campaigners and was conceded as "deeply disappointing" by Prof. Jebb herself at a Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum seminar in February.

However, in spite of acknowledging how challenging this area has been, Prof. Jebb believes it still may be possible to achieve a collective, voluntary commitment on responsible promotions. "I do believe that it would still be possible to develop voluntary agreements but I think that it would be hard for industry to mount a legitimate complaint about regulatory interventions by any government that wished to take stronger action, since progress through voluntary routes has so far, in my personal view, been slow and inadequate." A breakthrough on food promotion would unquestionably represent a fillip for the Responsibility Deal.

And what is the likelihood of the Responsibility Deal receiving the revamp it patently needs, if only to re-engage non-industry stakeholders? The Conservative victory in the recent General Election guarantees continued political commitment to the voluntary approach, particularly as the party constantly stressed its business-friendly credentials in the run-up to the election. But the Responsibility Deal embodies both the notions of voluntary industry action and cross-stakeholder consensus, and on the latter it is unquestionably failing. Jeremy Hunt will remain staunchly supportive of the Responsibility Deal but he will want to see it work better and garner more widespread support.

"New governments are always a chance to revisit ways of working," says Prof. Jebb. "We held several stakeholder events to review the Responsibility Deal over the last six months and I imagine new ministers will look at the views expressed and consider the options. As the [PIRU] evaluation shows, there is a lot of the Responsibility Deal which has and is working very well. At least a third and possibly two-thirds of pledges are new actions and companies are delivering on their commitments. I think there is an opportunity to do some things better, but I also hope that some of the Responsibility Deal critics will also acknowledge the progress we have made. I have not seen any similar evaluations from any other country showing similar or greater progress."

The Conservative election victory has assured the continuation of the Responsibility Deal for a further five years. However, unless it can be given something of a new lease of life with the criticisms in the PIRU report fully addressed, those five years will also see a continuation of the unsatisfactory status quo now reached, where the policy limps rather than strides forward, lauded feverishly by government and companies while being branded as ineffectual by others.

The Government would rightly be judged harshly for allowing that to happen but the UK food industry would also emerge with little credit.