Tessa Jowell is to join forces with leaders in the fashion world to wage war on the "tyranny of thinness", which she says is harming millions of young women.

The Secretary of State for Culture, in partnership with Stuart Rose, chief executive of Marks & Spencer and chairman of the British Fashion Council, will set up a task force to deal with what she calls the "cult of size zero". Experts in eating disorders will also be on the panel, along with fashion industry representatives. They will talk to girls in schools about what needs to change, using the internet, and there may also be a poster campaign.

With London Fashion Week next month, Ms Jowell emphasised that the campaign "is not simply about the fashion industry and ensuring that girls are not exploited". She said: "Fashion and the tyranny of thinness can undermine the confidence of young women."

Ms Jowell and Mr Rose agreed the task force last week, amid concern over waif-like models and their effect as role models.

Meanwhile, one of Britain's leading health and nutrition experts yesterday warned the fashion industry could face legal action on health and safety grounds if it insists on size-zero models for catwalk shows.

Professor Janet Treasure, a specialist in treating eating disorders at King's College London, said: "I work in the health service and they are very fussy [about employees' health]. They would not let anyone with eating disorders work there.

"We have been running this past barristers who have said that it makes sense. We need to examine health and safety legislation."

Health experts reacted angrily to what they described as a failure by the British Fashion Council to ban catwalk models with a body mass index of less than 18 at London Fashion Week. Size-zero models have been ruled out of Italy's prestigious Milan fashion week by a ban on BMI of less than 18. They are also banned from Madrid's fashion week.

Pressure is mounting on fashion houses and retailers to ensure their models are not dangerously thin. Last week the Spanish government, in moves designed to combat anorexia, asked its leading pan-European retailers such as Zara and Mango to increase the size of their window shop dummies to a size 10 or above.

British politicians yesterday expressed concern about the prevalence of skinny models on catwalks. Ms Jowell urged designers to support the proposals put forward by the British Fashion Council, which urged designers to use only "healthy models" but did not issue a BMI ban.

Opposition politicians, said the BFC had not gone far enough. Dee Doocey, Liberal Democrat culture spokesperson on the London Assembly, said: " I'm appalled that after a month of statements of concern about skinny models issued by the BFC, they have agreed to take no action."

Burberry staff protest

Workers from a Burberry factory poised to close with the loss of 300 jobs demonstrated outside the firm's stores in London yesterday. The employees, from the factory in Treorchy, South Wales, face losing their livelihoods after the clothing giant announced it was switching work to China in a cost-cutting exercise.