New taxes and mandatory health targets could be in the pipeline

Keir Starmer has sought to reassure business that the Labour Party will be “partners”.

When it comes to health policy, however, the food and drink industry is expecting quite a lot of “sparring”, with speculation rife of an incoming swathe of new taxes on junk food and the likelihood of mandatory targets to make products healthier.

So after years of government rowbacks, what should the industry expect come 5 July? Is a new ‘nanny state’ era on the cards? A key question is whether the voluntary approach that has characterised 14 years of Tory rule will be ditched. The evidence of its effectiveness isn’t good, despite the FDF’s election manifesto underlining a 13% reduction in calories by its members since 2015.

The government’s voluntary calorie reduction programme is in fact massively behind its targets to cut calories across food sectors, the Office for Health Improvement & Disparities (OHID) revealed in February, following a similar high-profile failure of its sugar reduction strategy inherited from PHE.

Meanwhile the soft drinks sugar levy, the health lobby argues, has proved the stick has worked where the carrot failed.

The OHID, itself the subject of swingeing cutbacks by ministers, has given companies until the end of next year to put things right.

But Labour is expected to go further, with senior industry figures convinced it will revive Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy plans if it wins.

Keir Starmer NFU

Source: NFU

Starmer at NFU Conference 2023

“Labour is planning a cross-department food policy so it would be surprising if it didn’t at least refer to the Dimbleby report,” says one source.

“But there was a lot in that report and it wasn’t all about new taxes. There were also proposals on free school meals and help for families facing food poverty. All of that could appeal to the Labour Party and could potentially be brought in without having to go near the taxation stuff.”

That could prove wishful thinking. In February, shadow health secretary Wes Streeting promised to ”steamroller” the industry into producing healthier products, while shadow public health minister Preet Gill, at the party conference last October, said Labour was “willing to lead” on tacking childhood obesity by making hard decisions the current government had ducked.

That could mean a 9pm watershed, an outright online ban on HFSS ads and a ban on HFSS multibuys.

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One element of health policy that could see some continuity is the Food Data Transparency Partnership (FDTP), a joint government and industry body that includes Tesco, Mars and Nestlé, which has been drawing up plans for all major food companies to report on the healthiness of their products.

The FDTP was itself a response to Dimbleby’s report, but the government quickly ditched his proposals to make such data compulsory.

snack aisle supermarket hfss GettyImages-1430384008

Mandatory reporting

Industry bosses claim judging companies on the revenue from HFSS would incentivise them to make healthier food more expensive, rather than making products healthier. But the health lobby is gearing up for mandatory reporting and also targets and more taxes.

“Whoever wins the election we believe it’s very important for the FDTP to be in place,” says Kat Jenner, director of the Obesity Health Alliance (OHA).”

“We are supportive of having companies reporting on the healthiness of their products but those measures will not be the game changer in the fight on obesity that’s required.

“We also need targets mandated by government which will require food companies to make their products healthier.”

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A key player promises to be innovation charity Nesta, which in February proposed supermarkets should face fines of up to 1% of their annual turnover from the Food Standards Agency if they fail to comply with a new system of mandatory healthy food targets.

Nesta, which in 2021 acquired the so-called Nudge Unit set up by former PM David Cameron, is believed to have widespread support within Labour.

Whether Labour would return to the sort of FSA that oversaw the original industry salt reduction targets remains to be seen, but Nesta is confident its proposals have cross-party traction as election day nears.

Chris van Tulleken and Henry Dimbleby - © House of Lords 2024 (c) photography by Roger Harris

Source: © House of Lords 2024 / photography by Roger Harris

On 22 February, the House of Lords Food, Diet and Obesity Committee spoke to Dr Chris van Tulleken and Henry Dimbleby as part of its inquiry

“Nesta’s proposals for how to measure the healthiness of retailers – using a health score that accounts for sales based on the government’s nutrient profile model – have been a key resource for the FDTP’s work to agree health metrics,” says Lauren Bowes Byatt, deputy director of healthy life at the charity.

“In addition, we have had substantive discussions about our proposals with UK government departments, including the Treasury and Department for Health and Social Care, opposition party officials and the Welsh and Scottish Governments. The engagement we have seen has indicated that industry is receptive We hope that all political parties will consider the benefits of having mandatory healthiness targets for grocery retailers, and a continuation of the FDTP’s work as they develop policy priorities for the next five year term.”

Supermarket bosses, however, have been highly critical of Nesta’s proposals for piling the responsibility on retailers for tackling the obesity crisis.

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BRC director of food Andrew Opie has called on ministers to stop picking on supermarkets, who had been leading reformulation efforts for years, while HFSS-laden menus in the wild west of the takeaway sector were getting away scot-free.

Ironically, the one sector that escaped Dimbleby’s taxation plans was small takeaways.Even if, as expected, Nesta produces further plans to extend its proposed targets on health beyond the 11 major grocery retailers, it will be a huge challenge for a Labour government to go after supermarkets whilst ignoring fast food outlets, not to mention the rapid delivery players, although they’re likely to face other issues besides, not least questions over their reliance on the gig economy.