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Sugar’s web of influence 3: Why the responsibility deal is a “dead duck” for sugar reduction

BMJ 2015; 350 doi: (Published 11 February 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h219
  1. Jonathan Gornall, freelance journalist, Suffolk, UK
  1. jgornall{at}

New evidence suggests that food companies are unlikely to meet a pledge under the government’s voluntary scheme to reduce the calories in their products by 5%. So what hope is there for the campaign to reduce sugar by 40% without regulation, asks Jonathan Gornall?

Since its launch in March 2011, the voluntary “responsibility deal” with industry has been the mainstay of the government’s public health policy in England. It has also been one of the most valuable tools at the disposal of a sugar industry keen to persuade would be regulators that it is a good corporate neighbour that can keep its own house in order.

Under the umbrella of the deal’s food network, all the major supermarkets and key manufacturers—including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and leading confectionery companies—have signed up to one or more of nine collective “pledges.” These have included commitments to introduce front of pack nutrition labelling and remove trans fats from products. But the main initiative, inspired by the government’s 2011 “Call to action” over obesity, has been calorie reduction.

Thirty nine companies signed up to “support and enable our customers to eat and drink fewer calories through actions such as product/menu reformulation, reviewing portion sizes, education and information, and actions to shift the marketing mix towards lower calorie options.”

Whether any of this has had any meaningful impact on public health will remain unclear until at least late 2015, when the Department of Health says it plans to publish the findings of an independent evaluation of the deal it has commissioned from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Numbers don’t add up

But it isn’t likely, according to Giles Quick, a director at market research company Kantar Worldpanel, which produces data on consumers’ food purchasing habits. He says there is a fatal flaw in the responsibility deal’s plan …

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