Public health minister Anna Soubry has told UK food industry leaders they must engage more companies in the Responsibility Deal on health or risk the government imposing regulation.

Speaking at a Food & Drink Federation (FDF) conference yesterday (22 January), Soubry praised the food sector’s progress on cutting salt in products and providing healthier options for consumers.

However, she insisted that more is needed if the Responsibility Deal between industry and government, which is based on voluntary pledges, is to be judged successful in improving consumers’ diets.

“Some companies have absolutely signed up, but some people are not engaged at all. That has to change,” she told the audience.

Her comments come as just-food understands that the high-level steering group for the Responsibility Deal on food is considering setting targets for cuts to saturated fat in products; similar to those currently in place for salt.  

Citing estimates that obesity costs the National Health Service alone GBP5bn annually, Soubry said: “We are now facing the prospect of a generation at risk of dying prematurely, not because they are malnourished, but because they are overweight and eat the wrong types of food.”

Soubry said her “instinct is not to regulate”. She reiterated that calls for legal limits on salt, sugar and fat in foods marketed to children are “bonkers” and that the “primary responsibility lies with the individual, and, in particular, the parents”.

But, she said the food industry has a “moral responsibility” to help improve diets, and warned that greater action is needed if producers and retailers wish to stave off legislation.

“The prime minister will be wanting to know whether we are delivering [on the Responsibility Deal],” she said. “I don’t want to be in a position where the PM and the health secretary are saying to me: ‘we are going to have to look at legislation’.”

She did not specify what regulation might entail. A recent example of the prime minister wresting the agenda from the Department of Health is his personal support for minimum pricing on alcohol in England, although the policy is marred by the possibility of legal challenges and ministerial divisions.

Richard Evans, chair of the FDF health and wellbeing steering group and president of PepsiCo in the UK and Ireland, praised the progress industry is making on the Responsibility Deal. There is an average 10% less salt in products than five years ago, he said.

But, he agreed that some companies – particularly small-to-medium businesses and also caterers – need to catch up. “Let’s make 2013 the year when we broaden the burden,” he told conference-goers.