Scaremongering became a thorny topic again this week as the industry returned to the war room to discuss the threat of the HGV driver crisis sparking food shortages.
As with last year’s lockdown, supermarkets are desperate not to see predictions of empty shelves become a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially with the memories of panic buying still so raw.
But as calls grow for the Food Resilience Industry Forum (FRIF) to be restored, at least until the crisis passes, another scare for the industry is looming – Henry Dimbleby’s long-awaited National Food Strategy (NFS) is now just weeks away from publication.
According to the Sun, which claims to have seen a leaked draft of the report by the Leon restaurant founder, it will include a proposal for a raft of new taxes on ultra-processed meat.
With some Tory MPs warning such a proposal would spark gilet jaunes-style riots, like those seen on the streets of France before the pandemic, good luck on keeping the scaremongering at bay with that one.
Without wishing to pour oil on the flames, there appears little doubt Dimbleby’s report will pose some fundamental questions for the future of the industry.
The Grocer revealed in March Dimbleby had left food industry bosses shocked by the extent of his plans at the Food Sector Council meeting, with a ferocious attack on the intensive farming practices of the industry and its reliance on ultra-processed meat.
Since then Dimbleby has somewhat gone to ground, according to industry sources. It’s claimed he cancelled one scheduled appearance with less than 24 hours’ notice and his only public appearance came via a TED talk online.
In that talk, Dimbleby said the food industry was at a “critical moment in history” and a reliance on intensive farming methods would leave the UK on the brink of “catastrophic” damage to biodiversity.
The industry’s obsession with net zero CO2 emissions could “unleash” a new series of threats, he warned, unless it also takes into account the impact of food production on nature.
With that in mind, rumours part two of Dimbleby’s report will include a proposal for a meat tax ring true, even if Dimbleby’s advisers insist they are “pure speculation”.
Indeed, when Dimbleby published part one of the NFS last year, he announced he had commissioned research into the impact of extending fiscal measures beyond the soft drinks sugar levy.
It’s not just meat in his cross hairs either, but other HFSS foods, symbolised infamously by his attack on M&S’s Percy Pig.
The big question everyone is asking, of course, is the extent to which Dimbleby has the ear of Boris Johnson. And whether the government, which has already hit the industry with HFSS restrictions and plans for a massive bill for recycling and packaging, will risk lighting the flames among farmers by taking on the sort of overhaul he seems to be suggesting. Especially so soon after Brexit and with the pandemic still yet to play out.
Government has promised a white paper within six months of the report, and few believe the UK will be anywhere near out of the woods by then on either issue.
There are some more conciliatory messages coming out from Dimbleby’s camp. It’s understood the NFS author is keen to promote new ways to positively market nutrition in food, such as fibre content, with industry sources suggesting this is something they would rally behind.
But as for meat taxes, that’s an issue which it’s hard to see as anything but explosive – without any need for scaremongering.