National Food Strategy issues urgent call to action

By Michelle Perrett

- Last updated on GMT

The National Food Strategy makes urgent recommendations
The National Food Strategy makes urgent recommendations

Related tags Food safety Supply chain Ingredients & nutrition

The National Food Strategy has intensified pressure on food manufacturers to support healthy eating, with author Henry Dimbleby claiming the industry clothes “itself and its products in false virtue”.

In a press briefing before the report was published, Dimbleby told Food Manufacture​ that food and drink processors “could do more” ​to back the responsible marketing and reformulation of food. The industry’s negative external impacts on areas such as the environment, as well as health, also needed addressing, he said.

The report comes just days after the Government published plans to tackle obesity​ in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.  

Part one of the National Food Strategy, led by British entrepreneur Dimbleby and published today (Wednesday, 29 July)​ is the first independent review of the UK’s food policy in nearly 75 years. The strategy, commissioned by the Government in 2019, aims to ensure a food system that is healthy, affordable, sustainable, resilient and productive.

The report has accused the food industry of “clothing itself and its products in false virtue”.​ It has criticised the promotion of high-fat, -sugar and -salt (HFSS) products – including “unhealthy multi-buy offers”​, and the strategic placement of products near checkouts. It has supported restricting advertising and welcomed the Government’s ambition to introduce a 9pm watershed for unhealthy products on television and online.

Dimbleby said: Unless action is taken to improve our food system, many thousands will continue to suffer. This does not have to be the case.

“I welcome the Government’s action to tackle obesity, yet more must be done. Most urgently, we must ensure that our most disadvantaged children – who are already at risk of being left behind by this crisis can access healthy food. The very foundation of equality of opportunity has to be a nutritious diet.

“Although the recommendations in this report are merely a first step, I urge the Government to implement them quickly. In doing so, it will improve the health of the nation and be a necessary pillar of its ambition to level up society.”

Dimbleby has made two major proposals in the report. He urged the UK to provide a “nutritional safety net​” for children in poor households and to grasp a rare opportunity to decide its character as a trading nation post-Brexit.

Key report recommendations

1. Expand eligibility for the Free School Meal scheme to include every child (up to the age of 16) from a household where the parent or guardian receives Universal Credit or equivalent benefits.

2. Extend the Holiday Activity and Food Programme to all areas in England, so that summer holiday support is available to all children in receipt of Free School Meals.

3. Increase the value of Healthy Start vouchers to £4.25 a week and expand the scheme to every pregnant woman and to all households with children under four where a parent or guardian receives Universal Credit or equivalent benefits.

4. Extend the work of the Food and Other Essential Supplies to the Vulnerable Ministerial Task Force for a further 12 months up until July 2021.

5. The Government should only agree to cut tariffs in new trade deals on products which meet UK core standards. Verification programmes should be established covering animal welfare, environmental and climate protections. Producers selling to the UK must prove they meet these minimum standards. The full set of core standards should be defined by the newly formed Trade and Agriculture Commission.

6. The Government should give itself a statutory duty to commission an independent report on all proposed trade agreements, assessing their impact on: economic productivity; food safety and public health; the environment and climate change; society and labour; human rights; and animal welfare. The report could be delivered by a newly created or existing body or independent consultants.

7. The Government should adopt a statutory duty to give Parliament the time and opportunity to properly scrutinise any new trade deal in the House of Commons and House of Lords.

Second World War​ 

The report stated that the food system had just endured its biggest stress test since the Second World War with the coronavirus pandemic. 

“As COVID-19 swept through the UK, the entire machinery of supply and distribution had to be recalibrated, fast. The fact that, after a wobbly start, there were no serious food shortages is a testament to the flexibility and entrepreneurialism of so many food businesses, and the resilience of the system as a whole,” ​it asserts.

“There have, however, been heavy losses. Workers in the food production and retail sectors have suffered some of the highest death rates from COVID-19. Those in the hospitality sector have taken the biggest economic hit, with a higher proportion of furloughed staff (and expected redundancies) than any other profession. Across the wider population, the wave of unemployment now rushing towards us is likely to create a sharp rise in food insecurity and outright hunger.” 

‘Terrible clarity’

The strategy document stated that the virus had shown, with “terrible clarity”,​the damage being done to people’s health by the modern food system. Children were at risk of getting “left behind​” unless “immediate action”​ is taken to improve the British diet, it claimed.

Dimbleby has called for the expansion of free school meals to every child from a household on Universal Credit and the expansion of Holiday Activity and Food Programmes to all areas in England.

The report has also proposed an increase in the value of Healthy Start vouchers to £4.25 per week, and where the parent or guardian is in receipt of Universal Credit. Dimbleby further proposed expanding the scheme to pregnant women and households with children under four years old. Chief executives from Waitrose and the Co-op have already pledged to supplement the vouchers with additional free fruit and vegetables.

On the impact of Brexit, part one of the National Food Strategy also found that the UK had a “once-in-a-lifetime​” opportunity ​to decide what kind of trading nation it wanted to be. The Government should aspire to a “gold standard level of scrutiny​”, said the report, and it called for the adoption of a statutory duty that would give parliament the opportunity to properly scrutinise any new trade deals. 

The report also urged the Government to only cut tariffs on products that met the UK’s “core standards​”. This would be achieved through verification programmes, and certification schemes should also be extended to environmental and climate protections where the impact was severe.

It urged the Government to be bolder on sustainability and accelerate its Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme. 

Part two of the National Food Strategy is due to be published in 2021. It will include a comprehensive examination of the food system and the economics that shape it.  

Food Manufacture  asked the author of the report Henry Dimbleby about what food suppliers and manufacturers could do?

 He urged food suppliers to do more to tackle the marketing and reformulation of food, claiming they “could do more”.

“I have met a lot of people who care a lot about the health and sustainability issues and I think there is much more they can do on their own,”​ he added.  

However, he said, the food system was full of negative  externalities, including the pollution of water, the cost of diet to the NHS or climate change. “While suppliers and manufacturers can do much more, until we start to take those externalities seriously, there is a limit to how much they can achieve.​”

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