Another week, another major government backtrack on health legislation. This time, it’s not HFSS regulations but the government response to the National Food Strategy that has large corners of the industry breathing a sigh of relief – and health campaigners reaching for the hard stuff.
Confirmation of government’s watered-down response to Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy came today, after draft documents were leaked over the weekend.
Instead of “bold” measures to tackle the obesity crisis – including a raft of new taxes on HFSS products, and free fruit & veg for hard-up kids – the government will invest in tomato greenhouses the size of the O2 Arena and incentivise deerstalkers.
In fairness, you didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to predict this report would end up being a damp squib. Dimbleby may have succeeded in getting ministers to acknowledge the “junk food cycle” in their language. But getting any government – let alone one with Boris Johnson’s backbenchers – to further increase the cost of food amid soaring inflation rates was always likely to be a step too far.
Dimbleby himself has always realised he would never achieve all of the goals in his two-part report. It seemed like a huge ask for any one individual to draw up a response to the major environmental and health challenges facing the country, and that was before the challenges created by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. The former Leon boss has openly admitted his taxation plans have been killed off by the cost of living crisis. That might explain why the National Food Strategy author himself was somewhat muted in his criticism of the government’s document, while health and sustainability groups rushed to condemn the developments.
Let’s not forget that around half of Dimbleby’s proposed measures have now been accepted by government, albeit not all in today’s documents. It’s a significant achievement in its own right. And his report has gone a long way towards bringing conversations over obesity and the environmental impact of food into the mainstream.
In fact, there is a school of thought that Dimbleby’s original National Food Strategy will come to be regarded as one of the most influential documents of its era, even if many bitterly dispute his conclusions over junk food and the impact of eating meat. It’s easy to see other Dimbleby proposals being revived by future governments in more favourable economic climates.
As for the industry, it is likely breathing a sigh of relief that more radical elements of Dimbleby’s report, such as a tax on salt, have been abandoned for now. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any significant implications on the horizon.
Take the government’s plans for a new mandatory system of reporting for metrics spanning health, and “possibly” sustainability and animal welfare too, by the end of next year. This represents a potentially huge piece of work.
Plus, there is the question of what health secretary Sajid Javid might have up his sleeve, following recent talks with the FDF and leading manufacturers over potential further steps to tackle obesity.
It is entirely possible some of the other measures overlooked today may resurface in his health disparities white paper, potentially out in the next few weeks. As Dimbleby himself told The Grocer: “It’s all eyes on Saj.”