Boris Johnson’s food tsar says he believes the government will still implement some of the measures put forward in his policy blueprint – despite Boris Johnson’s rejection of one of its key pillars within hours of publication.
Henry Dimbleby, who is co-founder of the Leon chain of restaurants, published the National Food Strategy last month, warning that people must cut their meat intake by up to a third and calling for salt and sugar taxes to change the way the nation eats.
But on the day the report – which took two years to put together and had input from hundreds of experts – was released, the prime minister said he was “not attracted” to the idea of levies on salt and sugar to tackle junk food and obesity.
Mr Dimbleby said: “I don’t see Boris’s reported dismissal of it as the kind of death knell it was portrayed as in some quarters. I see it as the PM being bounced into something after a speech about levelling up and saying he ‘would study the report with interest’ but was ‘not attracted to extra taxes on hardworking people’. Who could disagree with that?
“My guess is that the PM hadn’t read the report which is almost 200 pages long when he spoke. And actually the purpose of the sugar and salt tax is to force big food companies to reformulate their sugar and salt content, so it won’t necessarily lead to more tax.”
Mr Dimbleby said the sugar levy on soft drinks in 2018 had led to a number of drinks being reformulated to reduce sugar levels by almost a third so that prices for consumers did not rise. It came after a 2015 study revealed the scale of the sugar problem – finding that 22 per cent of adults in the UK consume sweets and/or chocolate every day with 44 per cent eating them several times a week.
He said that it was now widely recognised that government action was crucial in order to make progress and break the hugely damaging junk food cycle. “The food companies are privately telling government that it requires their intervention as there is no way food companies will do it unilaterally because the economics don’t work,” he said. “Speaking to people in the Treasury, I feel reassured and I can say the government recognise this and also that the NHS will be overrun if they don’t address this.”
Carbon labelling, he added, was another area where a Government call to action would be crucial to get companies acting together to bring change. His views come as the world’s leading authority on climate science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, produced a “code red” report this month warning that without urgent new policy measures to shift the global economy to a low-carbon footing, we face “unprecedented and irreversible” changes that will bring widespread devastation. Carbon footprint labels serve as a quick read for consumers to evaluate the climate impact of a product and motivate producers to cut emissions.
Last month The Independent revealed that Unilever would begin carbon labelling for the first time -marking a key moment in the shift to badge products with their cost to the planet – and how their move had split the industry. Early adopters such as Quorn Foods supported their initiative but the British Retail Consortium, the trade body representing UK retailers, said unilateralism was “not helpful” because a single universal approach has not yet been agreed, and Nestlé, which has over 2,000 brands, argued that “nobody should strike out with their own method” because “collaboration is essential”.
But Mr Dimbleby backed Unilever’s move. “My view regarding Unilever’s initiative is that companies pushing ahead on their own and introducing carbon labels is a good thing,” he said. “They will doubtless discover problems along the way, as well as what works. To tell them they must wait for everyone else to agree the way forward before they proceed is to stifle innovation and we don’t want to destroy innovation. But we also need the government to step in and play a role here so that we can have consistency as in nutritional labelling.”
He added: “I am convinced that the primary power of sustainability labelling on packaging is less about the impact on the consumer and more that it fires up companies and changes the behaviour of food producers. Companies hate having ‘red lights’ on their packs and they will compete to improve their brands and have the lowest footprint.
Carbon footprints – measured as a carbon dioxide equivalent value – show environmental cost from farm to fork, but can also be displayed using a green-yellow-red traffic light system.
Mr Dimbleby added that he was in favour of companies agreeing on a broader impact measure. “Carbon footprint labelling is too narrow a sustainability measure. We will need a broader, composite label that also incorporates a product’s impact on biodiversity loss, deforestation, water usage and methane and nitrogen emissions.”
But Mr Dimbleby said the only way to break the deadlock and get companies to work together is government intervention. “One of the recommendations of our strategy was that Government has a critical role to play to bring industry together to ensure consistency on sustainability measurements and labels, like we have with nutritional labels. The state needs to move quickly, but I am heartened that a lot of people in government see this as important. I am confident that environmental footprint labelling will happen.”