National Food Strategy author Henry Dimbleby has quit as the UK’s food tsar, furious at Whitehall’s lack of a strategy. But he’s not giving up on major change

Henry Dimbleby’s appointment as the UK’s food tsar four years ago was described by then Defra secretary Michael Gove as a “once in a generation opportunity” to change the food system. This week Dimbleby quit, slamming the “shocking” failure of those politicians he believes have blown that chance.

“There’s an unexploded bomb sitting underneath our society, which is the harm of the health issues from food,” he tells The Grocer, after resigning as an adviser and lead non-executive director at Defra. “Whatever colour the government is in 10 years’ time, dealing with that mess is going to be a major part of their policy and yet everyone is ignoring it because they don’t want to get stuck in a culture war about health food. “The government has given up on any of their big promises. They have given up on public health. It’s completely shocking and depressing.”

Cynics may suggest Dimbleby’s ‘resignation’ is a convenient way to gain more publicity for this week’s launch of his new book, Ravenous, as his four-year term as food tsar was at an end.

But Dimbleby has been railing for some time. And having failed to achieve meaningful change in Whitehall, isn’t giving up.

“We realised quite early on that the number of people who would download a government report on a website, however well written or clear, is limited,” he says.

“Literally as soon as we published the NFS, on the day we were doing it, I said we’re going to have to turn this into a book.” The book, written with his wife and journalist Jemima Lewis, will “change the way we look at food”, according to fellow campaigner Jamie Oliver. That’s certainly Dimbleby’s hope.“I hope people see it’s not because they are bad. It’s just an inevitable consequence of our appetite and the commercial incentives for companies.”

He adds: “I think at CEO level, people in the industry realise the food industry is making us sick… As I say in the book, if you’re one of those people in the food system who’s talking to government, at least don’t lie.”

Dimbleby’s thoughts on:

The government:

“The so-called Government Food Strategy is not a strategy at all. It is merely a handful of disparate policy ideas, many of them chosen because they are unlikely to raise much of a media storm”

Food industry and ad execs discussing the junk food crackdown:

“I should have sensed it was too good to be true. They wanted to mask the case against a TV watershed for junk food ads. It was a masterclass of spurious argument, obfuscation and the sowing of doubt”

His call to the industry:

“We need once again to muster our ingenuity, to reshape the way we produce, sell and consume food, so that it stops making us and the world sick”

Ravenous contains insightful new details into the creation of Dimbleby’s government-commissioned National Food Strategy (NFS). He talks of working with a series of “fellow free thinkers” from ex-Sainsbury’s boss Justin King to advertising grandee John Hegarty, the latter “dismayed” at the food industry’s willingness to fight against any whiff of “nanny state” regulations, whether it be junk food, alcohol, cigarettes, gambling.

Dimbleby echoes this view, accusing the food industry of exploiting the cost of living crisis to persuade ministers to delay and water down regulation. Dimbleby’s presentation of draft plans to the Food & Drink Sector Council for a swathe of taxes on HFSS products are said to have been met with disbelief and anger.

When Dimbleby finally published his full report in July 2021, ministers promised a response within six months. Yet more than a year went by before they produced what Dimbleby calls a “piecemeal list of policies rather than a strategy”.

Most of his more extreme measures were simply ignored, while a promised follow-up by former health secretary Sajid Javid never materialised. And following Boris Johnson’s demise, the government has now either shelved, watered down, or scrapped a raft of proposals including the proposed crackdown on junk food advertising and a ban on multi-buy promotions.

Having now left Defra, Dimbleby is, like the government, breaking his vow to respond officially to its National Food Strategy six months down the line, instead letting the book do the talking.

“Unsurprisingly I haven’t been reminded of my duty to respond and I’ve resigned from my role at Defra so I can speak more openly outside the organisation.”

But while Dimbleby is often scathing of government ministers and food industry bigwigs, he is far more complimentary about the civil servants at Defra, crediting them with “some world-class and amazing things” throughout Brexit, Covid and the invasion of Ukraine.

Henry Dimbleby

‘I’ve resigned from my role at Defra so I can speak more openly’

‘An embarrassment’

He marvels at the way the industry machine “crunched into gear” in response to the first Covid lockdown, but he has since grown “incredibly frustrated” that the same collaboration is not being applied to health.

“Steve Barclay [current health secretary} has talked about prevention but actually if you read what he’s said it’s not prevention, it’s early diagnosis,” he says. “He seems to be very much in the let people get ill but treat it earlier camp. “It’s an embarrassment.

“The sad thing is there is a grand tradition of Tory intervention on public health. It was Winston Churchill who said the greatest asset a nation can have is the health of the citizens.”

“I’m very pessimistic, I just don’t think they get it. Good government requires you to think what is the systemic issue, how do I change that and how do I sell that to the voters so they will accept it. That seems to be an increasingly rare skill in politics.

“Instead we’ve just been bouncing from pillar to post. I’ve had five Secretaries of state at BEIS since I’ve been at DEFRA.”

One positive from the government’s response to his strategy, argues Dimbleby, is its adoption of his plans for a Food Data Transparency Partnership, which should mean mandatory reporting on various health and environmental metrics. “The key there is that it includes nutritional data related to health and that it’s an obligation on companies,” he says. “A lot of companies are very excited about this because they realise we can become more efficient as UK PLC, as we saw during Covid when we had FRIF and we suspended competition laws. “What I hope is that when it comes out it’s not blocked by the whispering in the ears and it’s not watered down.”

In Ravenous, Dimbleby recommends an urgent rethink not just of our diet, but land use too, setting out the environmental impact of excessive meat consumption and modern farming methods, a much bigger threat than the war in Ukraine, he says.

Henry Dimbleby

‘As I say in the book, at least don’t lie’

He recently attacked the “weird culture” of UK supermarkets, whose fixed price structures with UK farmers he blames, at least in part, for the empty shelves seen in supermarkets of late, as shortages of fruit and veg have hit the supply chain

“I was sent a picture of cucumbers labelled for one of the major UK supermarkets being sold in a market in Spain.

“Supermarkets blamed it on weather but it wasn’t happening in the rest of Europe,” he says. “We have this fixed price system in the UK which is bad in a volatile market, [and it is] going to become more volatile because of climate change, and we should not be surprised if people supply to Europe where the price is three times as much.

“I understand supermarkets saying ‘we have to keep prices level’ but if you look at the waste and the shortage it creates it doesn’t make sense.

“You have to use price as a way of managing demand and I think it’s going to get worse because these volatile weather events will happen more often.”

While many are wary that widespread agricultural reform could quickly lead to higher prices, Dimbleby pushes back. “In the long term, destroying our production capability and producing food that isn’t environmentally friendly isn’t a viable solution to fixing equality,” he argues.

“We will have to accept there are times of the year when some of that fruit and veg will be more expensive and some will be cheaper. That doesn’t mean that your overall basket will be more expensive, it means you will have to change what you buy, that is just a simple fact.”

On that note, Dimbleby reveals his next venture, a bid to persuade people to eat less meat. It’s a key topic of the book, but Dimbleby’s NFS proposals shied away from the possible ‘meat tax’ he had contemplated, because focus groups showed it was a step too far.

Instead he has joined forces with one of the UK’s advertising giants on a new campaign stressing the positive health and environmental benefits of a more plant-based diet.

“Whilst the food industry has limited ability to deal with health without government intervention, I think it can have a huge impact in areas such as nudging people to eat less meat.

“I’m working on a big campaign with M&C Saatchi who are doing it pro bono, thinking about how industry can help people eat less meat to free up land,” he says. “I’m very bullish about it. There is some amazing innovation going on in the food industry and in some ways it’s easier because it doesn’t need as much government intervention.”

So despite his despair at the lack of political leadership, Dimbleby is clearly a man with an appetite to bring the food industry along with him. Even if sometimes it is kicking and screaming.