A challenge for the industry. Come out and tell an inconvenient truth: some foods are too cheap and, to adapt a phrase from Henry Dimbleby, some of them make our society, our planet and our animals sick. In reality, cheap food is not cheap – it just wrongly passes the cost on to others.
The National Food Strategy’s recommendation to impose a salt and sugar tax met with backlash from some food manufacturers, but should it? The blame for growing waistlines and our obese food environment should not be attributed to major food brands alone. However, high-fat, sugar, and salt (HFSS) products have been subsidized by taxpayers for decades as the NHS bears the rising costs of treating diet-related disorders. This model is illogical and unfair. Food companies should instead see the possible introduction of a new salt and sugar tax as the end of decades of subsidies.
I believe that at some point in the UK there will be a tax on ‘unhealthy snacks’ – or even a tax on ultra-processed foods. As we shift to the people who pay the real cost of food, the entire food sector needs to take more responsibility for the impact of its products – “polluter” -type approaches, as is the case with packaging. Step by step, measures could be introduced that learn from the landfill tax escalator and the sale of the soft drinks industry.
If Dimbleby’s proposed salt and sugar tax were implemented it would reformulate the product, but in reality it would raise some prices at the checkout. Doing so in isolation would hit the poorest hardest, rather than empowering people to switch to healthier options. To avoid such regressive effects, the government must take other measures to empower everyone, especially the marginalized: a properly functioning and humane welfare system, real living wages, affordable housing and measures to combat racial injustice.
The National Food Strategy is about much more than a recommendation to improve the diet of the country. It contains lots that food businesses can get behind in an instant. The overriding recommendation must be to ensure that trade deals do not go below UK standards, which many in the UK food and agriculture sector strongly support. Some farmer groups have supported the demand for less and better meat, and many companies already support the mandatory reporting recommendation.
The strategy includes a thorough analysis of many of the food issues affecting England (and the UK). Of course, it has its flaws and loopholes, but when organizations focus on it and undermine it, everyone misses out on the opportunities it offers. On issues you disagree with, carefully consider whether short-term resistance will only delay the inevitable, given the urgency of the hunger, health, biodiversity and climate crises.
Without the vocal support of food and farm businesses, the National Nutrition Strategy could wither. Now is the time for food industry executives, who have long called for a level playing field to work with NGOs, farmers’ groups and unions, to publicly call for a strong government response.
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