A number of leading UK supermarkets and food manufacturers have committed to a series of core commitments as part of the coalition government’s Public Health Responsibility Deal.

The Department of Health said today (15 March) that some 170 companies, including the UK’s major supermarkets, have signed up to a broad range of measures designed to “help the public to be more healthy.

Supermarkets including Asda, The Co-operative Group, Morrisons, Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose have pledged to include calories on menus, reduce salt in food so that people eat 1g less per day by the end of 2012 and remove artificial trans-fats by the end of this year.

The retailers have also committed to achieve clear unit labelling on more than 80% of alcohol by 2012, increase physical activity through the workplace and improve workplace health.

The pledges were drawn up by five working groups, focusing on food, alcohol, behavioural change, physical activity and health at work.

Health secretary Andrew Lansley said: “Public health is everyone’s responsibility and there is a role for all of us, working in partnership, to tackle these challenges. We know that regulation is costly, can take years and is often only determined at an EU-wide level anyway. That’s why we have to introduce new ways of achieving better results.”

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“These deals will work alongside the Department’s broader plans to take a bold new approach to public health. Public Health England will give local people the money and the power to improve our nation’s health. The money will be ring fenced to be used as it should be – for preventing ill health,” Lansley added.

However, a number of groups have criticised the deal, with the Food Ethics Council urging government not to rely solely on voluntary agreements with industry in tackling public heath issues.

“My concern, shared with other public health groups – including those involved with the responsibility deals for alcohol and public health – is that the coalition government seems to be shedding its regulatory responsibilities in favour of voluntary agreements with industry,” said Food Ethics Council executive director Dr Tom MacMillan.

“Asking industry to nudge consumers in the right direction is not enough – and risks undoing all that has been achieved recently in the public health arena.”