National Food Strategy calls on Government to break the country’s ‘Junk Food Cycle’

By James McAllister

- Last updated on GMT

National Food Strategy calls on Government to break the country’s ‘junk food cycle’ salt and sugar tax Henry Dimbleby

Related tags: National Food Strategy, Henry Dimbleby, Salt, Sugar, Tax, Government, Report

Henry Dimbleby has called for the introduction of a Sugar and Salt Reformulation Tax to help the country break free from what he describes as a vicious ‘Junk Food Cycle’.

In the second part of the Leon co-founder's National Food Strategy, published today (15 July), Dimbleby describes the food system we have as being ‘both a miracle and a disaster’.

However, he warns that ‘the food we eat – and the way we produce it – is doing terrible damage to our planet and to our health’.

The report states that the UK population’s ‘malfunctioning’ appetites and poor diets – fuelled by consumer and manufacturer’s reliance on processed food – place an unsustainable burden on the NHS, contribute to 64,000 deaths each year in England alone, and costs the economy £74bn.

It reads: “This plague of dietary ill-health crept up on us slowly, without generating much public uproar. But the Covid-19 pandemic has provided a painful reality check.

“Our obesity problem has been a major factor in the UK’s tragically high death rate.”

It adds that the UK now has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape the food system, and escape the ‘Junk Food Cycle’ in which it is trapped.

One of the key recommendations is the introduction of a Sugar and Salt Reformulation Tax that the report says would be a world first.

It suggests a £3/kg tax on sugar and a £6/kg tax on salt sold for use in processed foods or in restaurants and catering businesses.

This would raise up to £3.4bn a year, some of which should fund an expansion of free school meals to an extra 1.1 million children and an overhaul of Britain’s food and cooking culture.

Other recommendations include launching an ‘eat and learn’ strategy for schools, involving food lessons and the reintroduction of food A-levels, to help renew declining culinary skills across every social class; and introducing initiatives to support diet in deprived communities, such as a scheme to let GPs prescribe fruit and vegetables to patients who are food insecure or suffering from the effects of poor diet.

Elsewhere, the report calls for greater scrutiny of the food that is consumed, with an annual report on a range of metrics, including sales food and drink high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS) excluding alcohol, versus sales of fruit and vegetables.

Leaders of several major food companies told the National Food Strategy that the pandemic ‘shocked them into wanting to do things better’.

The report describes the hospitality sector as being ‘extremely adept’ at nudging consumers towards certain products and behaviours by means including changing menu layouts, and using discounts and promotions.

It therefore suggests there should be a statutory duty for all food companies with more than 250 employees – including retailers, restaurant and quick service companies, contract caterers, wholesalers, manufacturers and online ordering platforms – to publish an annual report on their sales of healthy and unhealthy foods.

As well as HFSS foods, the metrics should include sales of protein by type (of meat, dairy, fish, plant, or alternative protein) and origin; sales of fruit; sales of major nutrients including fibre, saturated fat, sugar and salt; food waste; and total food and drink sales.

“Publishing these numbers will allow investors, Government, and others to track whether businesses are heading in the right direction,” the report states.

“It will enable better scrutiny and maintain public pressure on companies to do the right thing.”

The report also warns that the environmental damage caused by intensive agriculture must be addressed.

“Our eating habits are destroying the environment, and this in turn threatens our food security,” it states.

“The next big shock to our food supply will almost certainly be caused by climate change, in the form of extreme weather events and catastrophic harvest failures.”

If the UK is to meet its targets on health, climate and nature, ministers must accelerate changes in people’s eating habits and food culture, it adds.

Britain’s consumption of meat and ultra-processed food would have to drop by nearly a third and its fruit and vegetable intake rise by 30% by 2032.

Cutting current levels of meat consumption would reduce the greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution from livestock, and free up farmland for forests and peatlands that can absorb carbon dioxide, as required to meet the UK’s net zero emissions target by 2050.

One idea that has been proposed is the imposition of a ‘meat tax’, but the report rules out such an idea on the basis that it would be ‘politically impossible’.

“For now, at least, we believe the Government would be better off nudging consumers into changing their habits, while investing in methane-reduction projects and the development of alternative proteins,” the report says.

“In much the same way that multiple state interventions have made renewable energy cheaper than fossil fuels, this would create a shift in behaviour without the need for an unpopular and regressive tax.”

Responding to the report, trade body UKHospitality says the National Food Strategy represents an opportunity to identify and tackle the challenges facing hospitality, as well as wider society and the world.

“As a battered and debt-ridden hospitality sector navigates its way out of the pandemic crisis, the recommendations for equipping our future workforce are very positive elements of Mr Dimbleby’s findings, not least a return to an emphasis on food skills being taught in schools, funding thereof, and strengthening the links and motives for taking food-related study to a tertiary level of education,” says Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality.

“Building and training our workforce is a top priority if our sector is to quickly revive and drive a national recovery and it is reassuring that this report afforded it due recognition.

“The report’s measures to improve healthy eating are essentially a continuation of the successful efforts of hospitality venues over recent years, to provide healthier options and help to improve lifestyle choices, and we look forward to working on future initiatives to achieve yet more.

“We are hopeful, though, that any such initiatives are taken at a pace that recognises the dire state of the sector as it looks to recover from the Covid crisis, but with appropriate consultation, so that we can best achieve lasting improvements collaboratively and without damaging recovery.”

The Government has six months to respond to the report.

Dimbleby was appointed to oversee the National Food Strategy back in 2019​.

It was described at the time as being 'the first major review of its kind in nearly 75 years'.

The first part of the review, published last summer​, considered the UK's trading future and stated that Britain's exit from the European Union gave the nation a 'once-in-a-lifetime opportunity' to reshape its food system.

It also reflected on the 'worst cracks' in the British food system that appeared as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, with other recommendations designed to make sure 'a generation of our most disadvantaged children do not get left behind'.

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