Report Urges Sugar and Salt Tax to Kick-start Better Food and Boost Health

Peter Russell

July 15, 2021

A Government commissioned report has urged ministers to undertake radical reforms of the food industry to underpin a healthier population and protect the environment.

The National Food Strategy called for the introduction of a sugar and salt reformulation tax, with some of the proceeds being used to expand free school meals and make healthier foods more affordable to people living in the most deprived areas.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to study the report but said he was not "attracted to the idea of extra taxes on hardworking people".

Diet a 'Drain on Nation's Health Resources'

The review, led by restaurateur and food writer Henry Dimbleby, said poor diets contributed to around 64,000 deaths each year in England, with a cost to the economy of an estimated £74 billion. It found that more than half of people aged over 45 were living with diet-related conditions.

The report also comes with a warning that our current system of food production and dietary habits is damaging the environment, threatening future food security.

Mr Dimbleby, the son of broadcaster David Dimbleby and the food writer Josceline Dimbleby, said that "the way we produce food is doing terrible damage to the environment and to our bodies, and putting an intolerable strain on the NHS".

COVID-19 had been "a painful reality check", he said, with high levels of obesity contributing to mortality rates.

The report acknowledged that changing an entrenched system of farm-to-fork food production that had evolved over many years would be challenging.

However, "We must now seize the moment to build a better food system for our children and grandchildren," Mr Dimbleby said.

Main Recommendations

The report set out how diets would have to change over the next 10 years to meet existing Government targets on health, climate, and nature. It anticipated that fruit and vegetable consumption would have to increase by 30%, and fibre consumption by 50%, by 2032, Over the same period, consumption of food high in saturated fat, salt, and sugar would need to decrease by 25%, and meat consumption should reduce by 30%.

The report made 14 recommendations for change. Among them were to:

  • Introduce a mandatory £3 per kg tax on sugar and a £6 per kg tax on salt sold wholesale for use in processed foods, or in restaurants and catering businesses. The levy could raise between £2.9 and £3.4 billion to fund measures to improve diet, while lowering calorie intake per person.

  • A £1 billion investment in research and development to help improve the national diet, develop sustainable farming practices, and protect the environment.

  • Introduce a statutory target to improve diet-related health in a Good Food Bill to be put before Parliament by 2024.

  • Introduce a statutory duty for all food companies with more than 250 employees to publish an annual report on their sales of various food types, including fruit, vegetables, different types of protein, and products high in fat, sugar or salt.

  • Increase the earning threshold for free school meals from £7400 to £20,000 per household to give an additional 1.1 million children a freshly cooked, free school meal each day.

  • Trial a 'Community Eatwell' programme in which GPs could prescribe fruit and vegetables, as well as dietary education and social support, to the most vulnerable.

  • Ensure that children learn about food in schools, and re-introduce a food A-level to encourage young people who want a career in the food industry.

Sustainable Agriculture

The report also recommended that agricultural grants to farmers to prioritise environmental protection over commercial activities should continue. The current cut-off of 2024 should be extended to at least 2029 to make it worthwhile for farmers to restore natural habitats, manage woodland, and promote animal welfare, it said.

It called on the Government to create a Rural Land Use Framework, in which some areas were used for food production, some for nature and carbon sequestration, and some for low-intensity, nature-friendly farmland.

However, calls for a 'meat tax' were rejected as being "politically impossible" as it did not command public support.

Measures Needed to 'Level Up'

Supporters of the proposals included chef Jamie Oliver who said: "This is no time for half-hearted measures. If both government and businesses are willing to take bold action and prioritise the public's health, then we have an incredible opportunity to create a much fairer and more sustainable food system for all families."

Baroness Casey of Blackstock, a social welfare expert and former senior civil servant, commented: "The pandemic has turned the divide between the rich and the poor into a gaping chasm."

The British Medical Association said implementation of the recommendations would "ensure that the Government’s 'levelling up' agenda works for everyone".

Dr Michael Dixon, chair of the College of Medicine, said: "This report is visionary and courageous and also much needed. It provides hope at a time when COVID-19 has exposed our vulnerability as a nation, which is in part the result of our poor diet. It is also deeply practical, offering solutions that can reverse a broken system and vested interests that currently result in healthy food being least available to those who most need it."

The Royal Society for Public Health called on the Government to ensure "long-term investment, and binding targets to re-engineer the food system to keep us healthy".

The Food and Drink Federation said that while it welcomed a debate on the future of the UK's food and drink industry, a salt and sugar tax would hit the pockets of poorer families. "These taxes will not drive reformulation," cautioned Kate Halliwell, the FDF's chief scientific officer. "Food and drink manufacturers have been voluntarily lowering fat, salt, and sugars in recipes for decades as well as reducing portion size, but it takes time to change much-loved products," she said.

The first analysis by the National Food Strategy was published in July last year. It highlighted the issues of hunger and health raised by the pandemic.

Ministers had committed to implementing four of the seven recommendations, Mr Dimbleby said.

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