News that Denmark is to become the first country in the world to introduce a tax on foods with saturated fat, in a bid to foster healthy eating, has sharply divided British opinion.
Tim Lang, professor of Food Policy at City University London, doubted that the Danish decision would make a tax in this country more likely. Political opposition to a similar tax in Britain was too strong, he told FoodManufacture.co.uk.
But, the Danish tax was further evidence that countries around the world were realising the inadequacy of relying on “soft measures” alone to promote healthy eating. “It is interesting that Denmark, purveyor of fat to the masses, is doing this.”
He recommended monitoring the success of the Danish legislation and other regulations around the world, such as the French plan to tax soft drinks from next year. “Britain is burying its head in the sand about obesity. This reliance on business sorting it [the obesity problem] out won’t change behaviour.”
Britain is 20 years into a 50-year process that it took to act upon scientific evidence of the dangers of tobacco, he said. “We are accepting an avalanche of fat and calories coming out of the food system which ends up directly on the NHS [National Health Service] bill.”
Charlie Powell, campaign director with Sustain, agreed that the Danish intervention should be adopted in the UK. “What Denmark does today, somewhere down the line, the UK is going to do later,” he told FoodManufacture.co.uk.
Obesity-related illness was costing the NHS £6bn a year, he said.
Powell recommended following the French lead and implementing a tax on sugary soft drinks. “In Europe, there’s recognition that fiscal measures are a powerful tool which are under-utilised in Britain.”
But Terry Jones, director communications at the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), told FoodManufacture.co.uk that Britain had little to learn from the Danish example.
“We should follow developments on the continent but developments like this are the thin end of the wedge,” he said.
Also, introducing a Danish-style tax in Britain would be highly regressive penalising the worst-off in society, he added. “The UK government is very clear that the way forward on dietary health issues is through the Responsibility Deal.”
It would also be a tax on choice and blunt the competitiveness of UK food manufacturers, he said.
Many foods are already taxed through VAT, he added.
According to an FDF position statement: “We remain convinced that the most successful approaches to tackling complex lifestyle issues such as obesity are those that are based on empowering healthier choices, rather than through discriminatory taxes on food and drink, which would do little to tackle the root of the problem: the imbalance between calories consumed and energy expended.”
A statement from British Nutrition Foundation, a charity which provides independent scientific advice on nutrition and health, pointed out: “There is currently little evidence to support taxation approaches as a means of encouraging people to make healthier food choices.
“A combination of interventions is likely to be most successful to improve the current UK diet. There are a number of dietary approaches that have been successful to date, including reformulation activities to reduce the salt content of foods.”
Meanwhile, the Danish legislation will affect foods which contain more than 2.3% saturated fat, including butter, dairy and some Danish pastries, plus meat and pre-cooked fast food.
Each kilogram of saturated fat will be taxed at £1.84 (16 kroner). That means the price of a small pack of butter will rise by about 25p.