By Dr Alan Barclay
National Retail Association Health & Nutrition Advisor 

Restauranteur and business man Henry Dimbleby has led a team of agriculturalists, food industry executives, food-activists and food-related academics to develop the latest UK National Food Strategy, officially released 15 July 2021.

The ambitious Strategy aims to achieve 4 main goals by 2032:
  1. Make people well instead of sick.
  2. Be resilient enough to withstand global shocks.
  3. Help to restore nature and halt climate change so that we hand on a healthier planet to our children.
  4. Meet the standards the [UK] public expect, on health, environment, and animal welfare.

It contains 14 specific recommendations to address the major issues perceived to be facing the UK’s food system: diet-related disease, health inequality, food security, climate change, biodiversity loss, land use, and trade.

Escape the junk food cycle and protect the National Health Service (NHS) 
  1. Introduce a Sugar and Salt Reformulation Tax. Use some of the revenue to help get fresh fruit and vegetables to low-income families.
  2. Introduce mandatory reporting for large food companies.
  3. Launch a new “Eat and Learn” initiative for schools.
Reduce diet-related inequality
  1. Extend eligibility for free school meals.
  2. Fund the Holiday Activities and Food programme for the next three years.
  3. Expand the Healthy Start scheme.
  4. Trial a “Community Eatwell” Programme, supporting those on low incomes to improve their diets.
Make the best use of our land
  1. Guarantee the budget for agricultural payments until at least 2029 to help farmers transition to more sustainable land use.
  2. Create a Rural Land Use Framework based on the three compartment model.
  3. Define minimum standards for trade, and a mechanism for protecting them.
Create a long-term shift in our food culture
  1. Invest £1 billion ($1.86 Billion) in innovation to create a better food system.
  2. Create a National Food System Data programme.
  3. Strengthen Government procurement rules to ensure that taxpayer money is spent on healthy and sustainable food.
  4. Set clear targets and bring in legislation for long-term change.

While the 4 main goals are laudable, and many of the 14 recommendations will likely be applauded, like those that reduce diet-related inequality, others like a proposed increase in added sugars and salt taxes will be far more divisive.

Rather than rely on the “health by stealth” approach, where food industry is encouraged to slowly reduce the amount of added sugars and salt in their foods and beverages at a rate that the average consumer doesn’t notice, the new Strategy recommends the UK Government should introduce a £3($5.60)/kg tax on sugar and a £6($11.20)/kg tax on salt sold for use in processed foods or in restaurants and catering businesses. This in theory would create an incentive for manufacturers to reduce the levels of added sugar and salt in their products, by reformulating their recipes and/or reducing their serving sizes. However, it is likely that at least some of these costs will be passed on to consumers, potentially increasing diet-related inequalities.

Another likely divisive recommendation is to reduce the amount of meat eaten by 20–50% over the next 10 – 30 years and to replace it with plant-based protein alternatives, to help reduce methane production, and to actively sequester carbon, amongst other things. One idea to achieve this was the imposition of a “meat tax”, but this was rejected due to its effect on increasing diet-related inequalities. The authors stated that for now at least, the Government would be better off nudging consumers into changing their habits, or in other words, using the “health by stealth” approach.

The UKs latest National Food Strategy does have implications for Australian businesses, with the much publicised announcement of the new Australia-United Kingdom Free Trade Agreement in June. Australian businesses aiming to sell their produce in the UK will most likely need to meet at least some of the Strategy’s recommendations. Recommendations for added sugars/salt taxes will also likely be echoed down under. Also, the lack of an equivalent Australian Food Strategy will likely see further calls to develop our own addressing our unique environmental, food systems and population health issues.

Overall, the Australian food industry would be wise to take heed. Embracing the Australian Governments Healthy Food Partnerships voluntary reformulation targets now, for example, may help them prepare for the future.

READ THE FULL UK NATIONAL FOOD STRATEGY