Ministers are under fire after rejecting their own food tsar’s calls for taxes on sugar and salt in England.
The leaked draft of the Government’s food strategy white paper, which was expected to be published on Monday, dismisses the key recommendation of Leon restaurant co-founder Henry Dimbleby, who was commissioned by Michael Gove in 2019 to lead a review into the nation’s food system.
Ministers will reject Mr Dimbleby’s calls for a sugar and salt reformulation tax in England, which he had backed as a key part of efforts to transform the nation’s diet to be “safe, healthy and affordable” for all.
A leaked version of the white paper published by The Guardian fails to deliver on the proposal, and instead says: “Government can set a clear direction for industry and ensure that consumers are empowered with information to make improved dietary choices.
“Government should also incentivise industry to reformulate and promote healthier food that is more accessible, and design and deliver policy actions that drive improvements across the food environment.”
i revealed in February that the taxes would be ruled out, after the Prime Minister signalled his opposition to the move.
Professor Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and Chairman of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt, said the move “makes it abundantly clear that our Government is in the pocket of the food industry and has no desire to bite the hand that feeds it.”
He added: “We can only assume that Sajid Javid has chosen not to implement these tailor-made recommendations for political reasons which completely contradicts the Government’s levelling up ambitions.
“This shambolic decision will no doubt massively impact the NHS and the nation’s health which will suffer the consequences and escalating cost of treating obesity, Type 2 Diabetes and tooth decay (all linked to our very high and unnecessary sugar, salt and saturated fat intakes) that the food industry is entirely responsible for.”
Mr Dimbleby had said some money raised by the tax should be spent on addressing the inequalities around food, by expanding free school meals, funding holiday activity and food clubs, and providing healthy food to low-income families.
He had 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 too was ignored in the draft white paper, the Financial Times said, with the Government instead repeating a pledge to preserve the budget in the current Parliament.
Rob Percival, head of food policy at the Soil Association, said a leaked draft of the Government’s food strategy white paper “feels like thin gruel”.
Mr Percival told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Some of the recommendations have tracked across, but a lot of what we’re seeing in the leak is a rehash of policies that already exist.
“Some of the key recommendations haven’t been tracked across. There’s nothing in there to support the type of dietary change that we need to enable more sustainable farming.
“These farming systems that the food strategy – Henry’s document – recommended are based around this mixed approach with ruminants and crops and livestock integrated together, and much less of the intensive meats that we’re currently eating – the chicken and pork, which makes up too much of our diets – so there’s no intervention on diet.”
Mr Percival said: “There seems to be this strange preoccupation within this leaked white paper with maintaining domestic supply of food – and there is some sense in that, given everything that’s going on in the world, the shocks that are rippling through the food system, we do need to maintain domestic supply – but we also need to change what we’re producing and what we’re eating.
“And it feels like there’s a really blinkered view where we just avoid the diet question – perhaps because it’s unpopular within the Conservative Party, perhaps because meat is a contentious topic – and just keep producing as much as we can of the foods that we’re currently eating.
“This idea that we can just keep producing cheap chicken to supply the public demand for intensively farmed livestock protein is unsustainable.”
He added: “I think that it’s really negligent, the degree to which it’s failed to follow through on the food strategy recommendations.
“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. It does not contain the robust, coherent approach to food policy that we need to address these issues. So it’s disappointing.”
Labour criticised the leaked document as “nothing more than a statement of vague intentions”.
Jim McMahon, the shadow secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, said: “The UK is in a cost-of-living crisis with food prices spiralling, real-wages falling, growth plummeting and taxes up. It is clear now that the Government has absolutely no ambition to fix the mess they have created.
“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.”
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.”
Additional reporting by Press Association