‘Half-baked’ Government food strategy attacked for absence of salt and sugar tax

Ministers have been accused of shunning recommendations from an independent review, while ‘goading’ farmers into producing more meat.

11 June 2022

A leaked draft of the Government’s food strategy for England has been branded “half-baked” and “flatter than a pancake”, with particular concern over the apparent rejection of a proposal for tax on sugar and salt.

Ministers were accused of concocting a blueprint “bordering on the preposterous”, with the document suggesting they will shun key recommendations from a major review of the food system by Leon restaurant co-founder Henry Dimbleby.

Campaigners also hit out at elements of the plan “goading” farmers into producing more meat.

Cabinet minister Michael Gove announced in 2019 that Mr Dimbleby was to lead a review into England’s food system to ensure it is “safe, healthy and affordable” for all.

Michael Gove
Cabinet minister Michael Gove (Oli Scarff/PA)

The review also aimed to investigate how the food system could help restore and enhance the natural environment, build a resilient and sustainable agriculture sector and contribute to urban and rural economies.

In his final report, published in 2021, Mr Dimbleby called for a sugar and salt reformulation tax as a key part of efforts to transform the nation’s diet.

This appeared to have been snubbed by ministers in a leaked draft of the Government’s food strategy White Paper, ahead of its expected publication on Monday.

The document, published in full by The Guardian on Friday, said “individual responsibility and choice” is important when it comes to eating healthily, and industry “also has a role to play”.

It said there is a “crucial role for Government to make targeted regulatory interventions to support change”.

But there was no promise of a new £3/kg tax on sugar and £6/kg tax on salt sold for use in processed foods or in restaurants and catering businesses, as recommended by Mr Dimbleby.

Professor Graham MacGregor, chairman of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt, said the leaked document made it “abundantly clear” the Government was “in the pocket of the food industry” and had “no desire to bite the hand that feeds it”.

In his report, Mr Dimbleby also called on ministers to make sure the budget for payments for farmers to deliver environmental benefits – such as restoring nature, preventing floods and improving soils – was guaranteed until at least 2029.

But this appeared to have been ignored in the draft White Paper, with the Government instead repeating a pledge to maintain funding levels during the current parliament.

Labour criticised the leaked document as “nothing more than a statement of vague intentions”.

Jim McMahon, shadow secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, said: “A food strategy is of vital importance, but the Government has dithered, delayed and now failed to deliver.

“This is nothing more than a statement of vague intentions, not the concrete proposals to tackle the major issues facing our country. To call it a ‘food strategy’ is bordering on the preposterous.”

Rob Percival, head of food policy at the Soil Association, said the plan felt like “thin gruel”.

“I think that it’s really negligent, the degree to which it’s failed to follow through on the food strategy recommendations,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“People are struggling to eat. We have these enormous challenges in relation to the climate crisis, the geopolitical shocks to the food system, and this is not up to scratch, this document.”

The draft White Paper said the Government accepted “much of the analysis” and “the majority of recommendations” from the Dimbleby review, with policy initiatives to boost health, sustainability and accessibility of diets, and to secure food supply.

Ministers appear to be moving forward with some of Mr Dimbleby’s proposals, including by consulting on mandatory food waste reporting for businesses of a certain size.

The Government has also agreed to trial a Community Eatwell programme, as announced in the Levelling Up White Paper, supporting those on low incomes to improve their diets.

The document said ministers would “support progress on a wide range of issues, including alternative proteins”, after the review urged the Government to “nudge” consumers into changing their meat-eating habits.

But it suggested sustainable sources of protein do not have to “displace traditional sectors”, pointing to “regenerative farming”, with livestock used to “benefit the environment in balance with food production”.

The paper said the Government would launch a call for evidence to better understand challenges in cutting methane emissions from farm animals such as cattle.

It added it would aim to increase the use of responsibly sourced wild venison – which would have otherwise been disposed of – in the food chain, and suggested seafood is “another potentially lower-carbon and healthy source of protein which can grow to fulfil its potential within the food sector”.

In his review, Mr Dimbleby had set a goal of reducing meat consumption by 30% over 10 years.

Louisa Casson, head of food and forests at Greenpeace UK, accused ministers of seemingly “goading” UK farmers into producing more meat.

“The Government’s food strategy isn’t just half-baked, it’s flatter than a pancake and missing most of the crucial ingredients needed to truly ensure our long-term food security,” she said.

“Instead of listening to the warnings from climate scientists on the urgent need to reduce meat production, ministers seem to be goading UK farmers into producing even more of it.”

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it did not comment on leaked documents, but a spokesperson added: “We will be setting out the contents of our ambitious new food strategy in due course.”

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