UK ministers and food industry leaders are keen to expand the reach of the Responsibility Deal in 2013 to show its many doubters that voluntary pledges can help to deliver healthier diets for consumers. Step forward Dr Susan Jebb, who, as chair of food portion of the deal, has the dubious honour of trying to keep everybody happy, at least some of the time.

Jebb spends much of her time balanced precariously on a high wire, as one might expect of the chair of a high-level steering group that encompasses health professionals, food industry representatives and civil servants.

Sometimes, though, the experienced nutrition scientist and veteran of obesity research is happy to take a forthright stance.

“People have got to start finding it more uncomfortable to be outside of the Responsibility Deal,” she tells just-food at the Food & Drink Federation’s (FDF) conference on ‘delivering healthy growth’. 

She accuses some companies of hiding their heads “below the parapet” and says there is a need to “start putting those companies under greater scrutiny, as to why they are not “stepping up to the plate”.

Critics of the Responsibility Deal’s ‘nudge’ approach are not hard to find. Some academics and health professionals argue its voluntary pledges will deliver too little too late, that there needs to be a broader policy to address the ‘obesogenic’ environment in which people live, and many accuse the government of letting industry get too close to policy-making.

In late 2011, the UK Parliament’s Health Select Committee also said it was “unconvinced” that the deal’s set of voluntary pledges would tackle the UK’s obesity problem. More recently, the UK’s main opposition party, Labour, called for legal limits on salt, sugar and fat in foods marketed to children.

Within this context, Jebb’s comments tally with a key theme of the FDF conference. Earlier in the day, public health minister Anna Soubry called on more of the food industry to take a “moral responsibility” towards healthy diets.

While there was praise for industry efforts to date, she warned of a whole generation facing premature death due to obesity. Her message was clear: most current ministers don’t like regulation on principle, but don’t push it.

There are also signs of frustration among those food companies that have shown greater commitment to Responsibility Deal pledges. In the words of conference speaker Richard Evans, the president of PepsiCo for UK and Ireland and also chair of the FDF’s health and wellbeing group: “Let’s make 2013 the year when we broaden that burden.”
For sure, though, there was also a good deal of praise bestowed on the industry for initiatives to make products healthier, and in particular a 10% reduction in salt in products in the past five years.

What can we expect in 2013, then? Jebb says the food network steering group is working on a plan. “We need to do some work on saturated fats, and that’s a priority for this year. It’s under discussion at the moment,” she says.

One option being considered is to set voluntary targets on fat reduction in products, similar to the strategy on salt, although this would require a meticulous category-by-category approach, Jebb says. 

Speaking of salt, there is unfinished business here. While records show that a lot of big players hit 2012 salt reduction targets for most products, it’s clear that not all products did. “We’re looking to reframe the targets, and to deepen the impact of salt reduction,” says Jebb.

Does that mean there won’t be new, tougher targets? “The first thing [companies] should do is get to the 2012 target, but we’ve absolutely got to look at more challenging targets, because we are still a long way from getting people down to 6g per day,” she says. She adds that there also needs to be work to change consumer attitudes to salt.

In terms of how to broaden the Responsibility Deal’s reach, Jebb argues that the catering sector needs to get more involved and that a layer of small-to-medium businesses also need to reached.
She says one way to do this is to make “the business case” for health. “When you go to some smaller businesses they haven’t thought that much about health,” she says. “It’s also about technical knowledge which could be shared. That kind of mentoring can really help.”

FDF and PepsiCo’s Richard Evans says smaller companies need to realise that they are missing out if they don’t switch to healthier options.

Speaking to just-food on the sidelines of the conference, he is less sure of companies’ willingness to share technology, such as salt or fat reduction processes. “Big companies have made a huge investment in intellectual property and I think there would be a reluctance to share,” he says.

But, he and FDF director-general, Melanie Leech, argue that the trade body and its larger members can communicate with smaller firms via mentors and advisers. This is already happening in Scotland, they say.

For Leech, it’s imperative that all companies get up-to-speed with the Responsibility Deal pledges to achieve “critical mass” in terms of results. Otherwise, she says, “it’s not fair on those big companies that have made huge investments. We can’t expect them to carry on if others are not doing enough.”

There is, however, a reluctance within the Responsibility Deal steering group to name and shame those companies not doing pulling their weight.

Other areas of policy not covered by the Responsibility Deal were also conspicuous by their absence from much of the FDF conference. Front-of-pack nutrition labelling will again be a key issue for debate in 2013, as might marketing practices.

For now, Jebb is prepared to be patient. “This is a marathon not a sprint,” she says. “I have to sit in the middle and try to edge the process forward.”