Dimbleby sets out food system blueprint

A landmark report has called for a tax to be levied on sugar and salt in processed foods and a 30% drop in meat consumption by 2032.

The national food strategy for England sets out how diets will need to change over the next ten years in order to meet government targets on health, climate and nature.

It forms the second part of Henry Dimbleby’s government-commissioned independent review into the food system. Part one focused on the urgent response needed to tackle the issues of hunger and ill-health raised by the coronavirus pandemic.

In a comprehensive farm-to-fork analysis contained in part two, the Leon co-founder and school food plan co-author said that by 2032 fruit and vegetable consumption will have to increase by 30%, and fibre consumption by 50%, while consumption of foods high in saturated fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) will have to go down by 25%, and meat consumption should reduce by 30%.

The report makes a number of recommendations to achieve the necessary dietary change including the introduction of a £3/kg tax on sugar and a £6/kg tax on salt sold wholesale for use in processed foods, or in restaurants and catering businesses. Dimbleby believes this will create an incentive for manufacturers to reduce the levels of sugar and salt in their products, by reformulating their recipes or reducing their portion sizes.

The strategy also recommends the introduction of 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 HFSS products.

It calls for the introduction of an ‘eat and learn’ initiative for schools, which would ensure that children start learning about food earlier and that all food lessons are well funded and rigorously inspected by Ofsted.

It also recommends the government should increase the earnings threshold to qualify for free school meals to £20,000 before benefits. This would mean a total of 1.1 million additional children getting a freshly cooked, free lunch every day.

Dimbleby calls for the creation of a national “reference diet” which would set out what a healthy and sustainable diet looks like, to replace the current Eatwell Guide that is based solely on health.

He says the reference diet should form the basis of a redesign of the current government buying standards for food (GBSF), to ensure that money for public sector food is spent on food that is both healthy and sustainable. It should also encourage public procurement from local food suppliers, to improve competition and drive up standards.

If adopted the recommendations set out in the strategy are estimated to have an economic benefit worth up to £126bn.

The strategy was welcomed by leading foodservice figures. Thomasina Miers, chef and co-founder of Wahaca, said the strategy “at last gives us a chance to transform both for the better and be leaders in this field, through a thorough overhaul of how we approach food and farming”.

The goal to reduce meat consumption is likely to be contentious, however. Dimbleby acknowledged that the target, which broadly aligns with that of the Climate Change Committee, “won’t be easy to achieve”. He shied away from recommending a meat tax and said that “for now, at least, we believe the government would be better off nudging consumers into changing their habits”.

Simon Billing, executive director at the Eating Better alliance, said the target “recognises that only by cutting back on all meat to sensible and sustainable levels, will we be able to tackle the impact our current overconsumption has on climate change, nature loss and our own health”.

Mark Bridgeman, president of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), said the strategy was a welcome addition to the debate about the future of land use and food production in the UK, however he added that “government must understand the important role livestock plays in environmental management, and it needs to avoid succumbing to the false narrative set by campaign groups that meat is inherently bad”. 

The government is due to respond to the recommendations in a future white paper.

Monday’s Footprint Premium will take an in-depth look at the national food strategy and its implications for the foodservice sector.

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