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National Food Strategy: What a tax on salt, sugar would mean

Produce Business report

The second part of the UK’s National Food Strategy, led by Leon co-founder Henry Dimbleby, was released last week, showing what it would take financially to get the nation on a more long-term path to more healthy, sustainable eating and the potential for general practitioners to prescribe foods for patients.

Among the many parts of the Strategy, first released last June and updated recently, is the potential for a tax to be levied on processed items containing salt and sugar in restaurants and catering businesses. Theoretically, those monies would then be put toward getting fruits and vegetables into the hands of low-income consumers through a series of initiatives, including 10 million or so UK individuals suffering from food insecurity.

Experts say revenues from the salt and sugar taxes also would support expansion of free meals for more than one million school children. Though estimated cost for the national program is in the £1.1 billion range per year, the tax could generate nearly £3.5 billion, and the benefits of having a more healthy society and improved social care could be a great as £63bn over 25 years, according to experts from DHS and NHS. Though there are concerns about pressures being put on companies to absorb costs as well as the potential for higher food prices, the benefits are hard to overlook.

“The Strategy gives a welcome prioritisation to the urgent issues of poor dietary health, health inequalities and environmental damage caused by the current food system,” said Professor David Barling, head of the Centre for Agriculture, Food and Environmental Management Research at the University of Hertfordshire. “It is refreshing to see these social challenges being prioritized over economic growth of the food sector, as is often the case with national food strategies.”

Other recommendation put forth in Part 2 of the Strategy include:

  • “Mandatory reporting for large food companies, which would seek data on product sales and food waste
  • A Learn to Eat scheme to get children to learn to eat more healthy food items through an overhaul of curriculum changes
  • Expansion of both the Holiday Activities and Food and Healthy Start programmes
  • The trial of a Community Eatwell programme that helps lower-income families to eat healthier, including general practitioners prescribing food to them
  • Guaranteed budgets for farmers through 2029 aiming to improve sustainable practices
  • The investment of £1 billion in innovations to create a better food system.”

“It is great to see the Strategy recommending several novel policies, including the world’s first sugar and salt tax, a Land Use framework aimed at supporting net zero ambition, and innovation fund for a ‘better food system’ which looks beyond the usual technological innovation and embraces the role of social innovations like community kitchens,” said Dr. Kelly Parsons, research fellow at the University of Hertfordshire’s Food Systems and Policy research group.

“Other positives are mandatory reporting for food companies on the healthiness and sustainability of their sales, and a community bold stance on the government’s approach to trade policy and food standards, making clear that not honouring a manifesto commitment to protect standards would potentially bankrupt the domestic farming sector.”

According to a BBC report, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was not keen on the addition of taxes on consumers though government would look at the proposal and have answers within six months.

In addressing the political pragmatism of the plan, Parsons says, “the report’s recommendations are clearly made with a firm eye on what will work; firstly in terms of policy measures it is confident will succeed in tackling challenges, and secondly in terms of what is likely to be winnable with the current political administration in place. They are clearly foregrounded in discussion with government ministers about what has a chance of being implemented. Revenues from the sugar and salt tax are earmarked to pay for healthy food for those that can’t normally afford it, a tactic which has been shown to increase public, and therefore political, support for policy intervention.”

So what are the chances it could move forward?

“The Strategy’s ambition and innovation are highly commendable, and its political pragmatism too,” Barling said. “Whether it has achieved the right balance between these two will be easier to gauge as the process shifts to its next phase.”

That phase will be in the form of a white paper from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), as Johnson noted.

“The recommendations will need to journey successfully through the political jungle of policymaking and implementation processes and overcome many obstacles along the path: practical, bureaucratic and ideological,” Barling said.



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