National Food Strategy – Part Two

By Will McMyn

This morning’s papers were awash with headlines about new taxes on sugar and salt as the second (and final) part of the National Food Strategy was published. While the name gives the document the air of official government policy, it is in fact an independent report with recommendations for policymakers. The government, which commissioned the report, has committed to responding with its own white paper within six months.

Naturally, in line with the usual Westminister and Whitehall shorthand, the report has been dubbed the “Dimbleby Review” after its author. Henry Dimbleby is best known as the founder of the Leon restaurant chain, but he also co-founded the Sustainable Restaurant Association, sits on DEFRA’s board as a non-executive, and has a background in strategy consultancy at Bain & Co. 

The first and second parts of the Dimbleby Review are very different. The first part was released thirteen months ago and focused on two immediate challenges to the UK food system: COVID and the end of the Brexit transition period. 

The second part of the review has a much broader scope, looking at the food system as a whole, and making fourteen recommendations to address, in Dimbleby’s own words, “the terrible damage to our planet and to our health” done by the food we eat and the way we produce it.

The salt and sugar taxes are perhaps the most eye-catching recommendations. Dimbleby proposes taxes of £3/kg on sugar and £6/kg on salt sold for use in processed foods or in restaurants and catering businesses. This, he argues, would create an incentive for manufacturers to use less sugar and salt in their products, tweaking recipes or reducing their portion sizes. Dimbleby says that food companies cannot be expected to act voluntarily as customers will simply swap to competitors: it seems he accepts that, left to our own devices, our purchases naturally gravitate towards tasty treats rather than healthier choices. Cue the usual debates about freedom of choice versus state intervention.

While happy to tax salt and sugar, Dimbleby has shied away from recommending a meat tax, despite stating that a 30% reduction in our national meat intake by 2032 is needed to meet our national objectives on health, climate and nature. He recognises, perhaps, that taxing meat is politically a step too far. 

Dimbleby celebrates developments in “alternative proteins” (including namechecking the US company behind the much-vaunted “Impossible Burger”, a drool-inducingly realistic facsimile of the genuine article, but which causes 89% fewer carbon emissions). He would like the UK to do more to foster our own start-ups, rather than see our food tech talent and ideas migrate abroad. 

Dimbleby also sees food policy as an instrument to tackle inequality – bad diets and related health problems are highly correlated with low household incomes. He recommends a number of policies, such as widening eligibility for free school meals and giving GPs the option to prescribe fruit and vegetables – along with food-related education and social support – to patients suffering the effects of poor diet or food insecurity.

The Prime Minister appears already to have given his verdict on the proposed sugar and salt taxes. Speaking to reporters on the subject today he said: “I am not, I must say, attracted to the idea of extra taxes on hard-working people.”

However the PM’s own efforts to further his vision for tackling inequality fell flat today as his high profile speech about his levelling up agenda came under fire for offering nothing in the way of new policy. 

Food for thought.