Rapid change called for ahead of National Food Strategy part two

By Gwen Ridler contact

- Last updated on GMT

Food industry experts have called for rapid change across the supply chain ahead of the National Food Strategy part two
Food industry experts have called for rapid change across the supply chain ahead of the National Food Strategy part two

Related tags: Supply chain

The imminent publication of the second part of Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy has sparked calls for change across the UK food system in order to support the future of food supplies.

Published on 15 July, Part 2 offers in-depth analysis on tackling healthy eating​, the climate crisis, biodiversity, pollution, antimicrobial resistance, zoonotic diseases, the sustainable use of resources and the effect of meat production on the environment. Reactions have been mixed​.

Part one of the report, published in July last year, intensified pressure on food manufacturers to support healthy eating, with author Henry Dimbleby claiming the industry clothes “itself and its products in false virtue”.

Dimbleby called for the industry to do more to back the responsible marketing and reformulation of food and address its negative external impacts on areas such as the environment and health.

Industry reaction to part one of the report​ was generally positive, there was some disappointment regarding the Government’s handling of its obesity strategy and the choice of the Trade and Agriculture Commission to define core standards.

Rapid change

Ahead of Part 2's publication, members of the University of Sussex's Food Research Collaboration urged the UK to begin a period of rapid change in its food system. Such transformation was needed to address persistent and structural challenges and enable the UK to develop sufficient resilience and capacity to deal with future shocks and stresses.

In its report, Testing Times​, ​released ahead of part two of the National Food Strategy, food experts from across the UK said the UK food system can only be considered secure when it provides a supply that is sufficient, sustainable, safe (microbiologically and toxicologically), healthy (nutritionally), and equitably affordable by all.

But in order to enact these changes, the food system would require clear leadership and public engagement.

The report set out nine principles to shape policy, with tests that should be applied to the steps the Government takes to implement the National Food Strategy​.

Testing Times: nine principles to shape food policy

  • the food system should be led by clear, sound, coherent goals focused on food security;
  • the route to food resilience is through ecological integration, linking healthy diets, biosphere, farming, people and economy;
  • the food system is dominated by giant companies when a more resilient one would be more diverse;
  • food democracy has to be embedded in publicly accountable food governance;
  • food standards must be part of a cycle of continuous improvement;
  • 'food defence' should prioritise citizens;
  • food science and technology should serve the public;
  • food work should be skilled, safe and properly remunerated.

Tim Lang, emeritus professor of food policy at the Centre for Food Policy, City, University of London, Erik Millstone, emeritus professor of food policy, SPRU, University of Sussex, and Terry Marsden, emeritus professor of environmental policy and planning, Cardiff University co-authored the report.

Making food cheaper not the sole answer

The paper stresses simply making food cheaper would not help the challenges inherent in the UK food system if all players in the supply chain were not getting fair returns and the food was not healthy.

Lang told Food Manufacture ​making food affordable to all was a multi-faceted problem. "It's about wages, it's about incomes, it's about welfare benefits. Government policy over the past ten years has widened inequalities between people on low incomes and the affluent. That has to narrow. That has to be fiscal measures.

"Just saying you want to make food cheaper doesn't resolve the problem, because if food prices get cheaper, benefits and wages tend to get reduced."

He also said encouraging cooking culture and empowering consumers was important. "One of the problems of the rise of processed foods is that it builds a reliance among consumers that food is something that comes from a package.

Build food defence by building skills

"Part of our argument is to build community food defence and resilience by building people's skills. There has to be a big emphasis on creating skilled consumers. They are skilled, but they are skilled at choosing between packets. The packets are giving power to companies rather than them to determine what is in the food.

"We have got to build in the next 20 years a different food culture of citizens who know how to cook from scratch, are competent, who know the difference between foods in relation to what can be done with raw foods, not necessarily pre-made foods."

Britain had the highest amounts of 'ultra-processed foods' of any country in Europe, with the highest amounts of fats, salts and sugars in them, he argued. "Culture has been divided between those who know how to cook and those who don't. We have got to shift that."

Lang also argued for a vibrant small and medium-sized enterprise sector. "It's bad for the economy and for capitalism if giant companies dominate the food manufacturing sector."​ A restructure of the food industry was needed to enable it to supply local produce for nearby consumers, he said.

Millstone added: “If UK food safety standards are to be maintained, or better still improved, the Food Standards Agency will need to be reformed so that it actually puts consumers first, rather than merely saying so, and is properly independent of the food industry’s commercial interests.

Empowering consumers

“A test for Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy report is whether it actually empowers consumers, ends food poverty and contributes to making the UK’s food system safe, healthy and sustainable.”

Commenting ahead of the National Food Strategy Part Two’s​ publication, Food and Drink federation chief scientific officer Kate Halliwell said it would be a great opportunity for a broad review of how the industry can transform the food system.

“We would like to see a wide range of areas covered within the report including initiatives to boost skills and innovation within the food and drink industry, more positive ways to encourage a healthy and fit nation and suggestions on how to improve the environment,” ​she continued.

“We will be contributing our own input to DEFRA ​[Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] via the Food and Drink Sector Council report over the summer. We look forward to seeing Government’s White Paper at the end of the year which will have considered a wide range of inputs.”

The Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST) set out evidence-based changes needed to bolster a professional, resilient and innovative UK food sector. They are:

  • The need for a long-term truly UK-wide national food strategy
  • Investment in the food sector to build a competent, innovative and resilient industry with strong foundations in science and technology
  • A need to inform and educate our UK population on healthy, sustainable diets to empower citizens to eat healthily and sustainably.

IFST president Helen Munday said: “Unprecedented change in the food system, resulting from EU Exit and COVID-19, has shown how important a resilient UK food system is.

Without an inclusive UK-wide food strategy with long-term goals and a global view, we will not leverage technological opportunities to improve and develop UK food to be fit for the future.

"IFST’s vision highlights the need for investment in innovation, its implementation and the skills needed to deliver more sustainable products and processes. Providing our citizens with a greater understanding of food and diet will empower them to make informed food choices, build trust and open dialogues around new technologies.”

Meanwhile, the Government must recognise the impact of the hospitality sector's shutdown on its suppliers,​ and act urgently to support the supply chain, according to a House of Commons committee report.

Related topics: Supply Chain

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