Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, has written to the UK's leading supermarkets demanding action after Department of Health (Euronext: IXSHL.NX - news) (DoH) officials said that the retail giants had failed to follow through on commitments to remove alcohol promotions from the front of their stores.
Mr Lansley's letter to Sainbury's, Tesco (LSE: TSCO.L - news) , Marks and Spencer (LSE: MKS.L - news) , Co-Op and Waitrose reiterates requests made earlier in the year that supermarkets pledge to remove alcohol promotions from the front of retail outlets where they are clearly visible to casual shoppers.
A number of pressure groups, including Alcohol Concern, have already withdrawn from the "responsibility deal" because they said the Government was not being tough enough on retailers. And the fact that Mr Lansley has had to write to the supermarkets is likely to increase concerns that the deal has little substance.
Whitehall sources said that only Asda (NYSE: WMT - news) had signed up to the policy on removing alcohol at the shopfront and were now a "lone ranger". "They should be praised and now others should follow up on what was agreed," the official said.
Although the Government did not go as far as ordering that alcohol is only stocked in one specific part of the shop, the voluntary deal signed earlier in the year was aimed at allaying fears that heavy alcohol discounting encourages binge drinking.
Whitehall officials have now made it clear that if a voluntary agreement cannot be made to stick, legal regulation on the sale of discounted alcohol in shops could follow.
Mr Lansley said: "Asda has taken a tough decision but it's the right one. We hope that others will follow their example."
Although the letter does not attack shops and "thanks" them for progress made so far, DoH officials have made it clear that there is increasing irritation about the lack of supermarket action. The letter said that the Government wanted to see "all major alcohol retailers' full participation in this effort".
The responsibility deal also covers healthy eating. Last week The Grocer magazine reported that health groups had pulled out of the food deal and were now refusing to attend meetings.
It said that Mr Lansley was warned that without support from the health lobby the deal was in danger of disintegrating.
Last night, supermarkets said that they were still fully behind the deal, with Co-op saying it was "committed to seeing it through" and M&S stating that the retailer took responsible drinking "very seriously".
None of them, however, pledged to follow Asda.
A spokesman for Tesco said: "We were pleased to sign up to all the relevant responsibility deal pledges on alcohol and remain committed to playing a positive part in the process.
"This builds on the work we are already doing leading the first community alcohol partnership in central London; putting unit labelling on the front of packs"
A Sainsbury's spokesman said: "We were pleased to be part of the responsibility deal from the outset and to have signed up to all the collective alcohol pledges.
"We recognise our duty to be a responsible retailer of alcohol. We were the first UK retailer to put Department of Health approved alcohol information labels on our own-brand alcohol products and now have point of sale alcohol units information in all our stores.
"In order to prevent underage sales, we have a policy of Think 25 in all our stores.
"The vast majority of our customers buy alcohol as part of their weekly shop and drink responsibly in their own homes."
Waitrose could not be reached for comment.