Henry Dimbleby at the House of Lords Food, Diet and Obesity Committee inquiry

Source: House of Lords 2024 / photography by Roger Harris

Henry Dimbleby at the House of Lords Food, Diet and Obesity Committee inquiry

Food industry bosses have told The Grocer they believe Labour is preparing to revive Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy if it wins the general election, raising the prospect of a wave of taxes on food high in fat, sugar or salt

The former heath tsar’s landmark 2021 report included proposals for the soft drinks levy to be replaced by a much wider set of taxes on HFSS food, payable by supermarkets, suppliers and the hospitality sector.

The Leon restaurant founder’s plans have been ignored by ministers under successive Tory leaders. But leading figures in the industry claim Labour is seriously considering turning to Dimbleby’s recommendations in the war on obesity, with the party promising a far more interventionist approach on public health.

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said in February he was prepared to “steamroll” the industry into producing healthier food, with Labour promising to bring in the shelved plans for a crackdown on junk food advertising on TV and online. Leader Keir Starmer has since spoken of the positive impact of so-called nanny state policies.

Despite shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves this week ruling out tax rises if Labour triumphs on 4 July, food industry sources said the prospect of a Labour onslaught on health was at “the very top of the agenda” as the clock ticks down to election day.

“I think there is a real prospect that a Labour government will revisit the sugar tax,” said one top industry source.

“The Labour team have looked very closely at Henry’s National Food Strategy and there is a lot of support for it, not least because it can be done quickly. It is almost an off-the-shelf document that doesn’t require a long time, or a big expensive review, in order to show action.

“Moreover, his proposals carry a lot of credibility and have widespread support not just from the health lobby but from quarters within industry.

“Bringing in the NFS would mean Labour wouldn’t need to carry out a big inquiry into how to tackle obesity – the science is already there. Some of the shelved measures on HFSS could be revived in a day in parliament. It’s just a matter of activating the statutory instruments.

“And there is a revenue element in terms of the taxation proposals, which I don’t think would go amiss with Reeves despite her protestations.”

Dimbleby, who was appointed by Michael Gove in 2019 and whose advisory panel for the report included former Sainsbury’s CEO Justin King, then Unilever chief Seb Munden and former Greggs boss Roger Whiteside, argued in the report that the soft drinks sugar levy had proved far more effective than voluntary reformulation in pushing the industry to make products healthier.

Dimbleby said it should be extended to a raft of other sectors to “break the junk food cycle” and save the NHS from financial disaster.

Another industry source told The Grocer: “I would not expect a new Labour government to come in and immediately announce a wave of new taxes. It’s not a ‘first 100 days’ thing.

“But in the longer term I think it will launch a crackdown on HFSS foods, fuelled by the wider concern over ultra-processed foods.”

Speculation over Labour’s plans for health comes with leading food companies having agreed to model a new system of reporting on the healthiness of their products, under the government’s joint industry body the Food Data Transparency Partnership (FDTP).

Companies including Tesco, Mars and Nestlé have agreed to trial new metrics including reporting the sales weighted average (in tonnes) of their products based on the government’s nutrient profiling model score. The modelling will also include the percentage of total product sales (tonnage) from HFSS products and the sales-weighted calories content per 100g (calorie density).

It comes after The Grocer revealed last month that FDTP plans for a raft of other metrics, including revenue-based HFSS figures, had been ditched. Campaign groups, as well as some retailers and suppliers, believe the reporting should be mandatory, as suggested in Dimbleby’s report, and also want the government to pass regulation to enforce targets across the industry.