Professor Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London and chairman of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt said: “The National Food Strategy proposed bold, evidence-based recommendations that would have had an enormous impact on improving our food system, making healthier food more available and accessible to all."
Proposals included the idea of taxing products high in salt and sugar, MacGregor said. "However, today's announcement makes it abundantly clear that our Government is in the pocket of the food industry and has no desire to bite the hand that feeds it. This shambolic decision will no doubt massively impact the NHS and the nation’s health, which will suffer the consequences and escalating cost of treating obesity, Type 2 Diabetes and tooth decay all linked to our very high and unnecessary sugar, salt and saturated fat intakes that the food industry is entirely responsible for."
Dimbleby recommendations in brief
Henry Dimbleby's proposals for a National Food Strategy were published in two parts in July 2020 and July 2021. Part 1 dealt with the importance of giving all the public equal access to affordable healthy food and prioritising UK food standards in any free trade agreement with another nation. Part 2 explored these areas further as well as detailing ways to enhance and maintain food security and improve the environmental impact of the supply chain.
The Food Foundation - a key adviser on Dimbleby's National Food Strategy - called the Government response 'disappointing', reflecting 'echoes of many of Henry Dimbleby’s good ideas'. Crucially, it said it neglected to mention a Food Bill, which could lead to the ideas that have been picked up being enshrined in law.
Anna Taylor, executive director of The Food Foundation said: “Today’s White Paper shows no one in leadership in Government appears to have really grasped the scale and urgency of the challenges posed to our health and our planet by the food system. What’s more, these challenges are growing exponentially with the cost of living crisis.
"Despite its name, the whole document is lacking a strategy to transition the food system towards delivering good food which is accessible to everyone. And without a commitment to a new Food Bill, many of the commendable commitments made are in reality toothless."
Similarly, Sue Davies, head of consumer rights and food policy at consumer rights organisation Which? said: "It's right that the strategy stresses the importance of driving more sustainable UK food production, but many of the recommendations made by the Government's independent adviser on how the food system can be healthier for people and the planet, have been watered down, ignored or put off for further consultation.
"This includes vital safety nets which are needed now, such as extending eligibility for free school meals and the healthy start scheme – as well as important measures to ensure that all consumers are protected by baseline core food standards for imported food."
Asked whether the white paper had much substance, Dimbleby told Food Manufacture: "It isn't a strategy so much as a list of policies."
He admitted many of his recommendations on healthy eating were not referenced, but added: "They have kicked stuff down the road to the Health Disparities white paper." This is believed to be being published before parliament's summer recess.
Trade and food standards
He argued the requirement for UK food standards to be protected in any free trade deal should be included in legislation - something the Government has not called for. "It's not on a statutory footing, which it needs to be."
He also cautioned that there were signs that the Government intended to turn its Future Farming Programme into another version of the Common Agricultural Policy focused on quotas and financial returns. That 'would be a disaster', he said. "You wouldn't get any of the environmental benefits."
He said he was not surprised there were no overt references to encouraging consumers to cut meat consumption and eat more plant-based alternatives. "There's a significant majority of people who believe very strongly the Government should not be telling them or incentivising them to eat less meat, even though it needs to happen." That said, the Government had proposed adopting a policy to reduce methane emissions from ruminant livestock and had advocated £120m-worth of investment into exploring alternative proteins.
Junk Food Cycle
However, he highlighted that the Government had acknowledged 'the Junk Food Cycle' he had flagged. "It's the first time a Government document, as far as I'm aware, has acknowledged there's a problem with the commercial incentives of companies and the interaction between that and our evolved appetites."
He praised the Government's adoption of the pursuit of a rural land-use framework for food production, which was 'fundamental to the environmental side'. The policy incorporates his suggested 'three-compartment' model of intensification, land sharing and land sparing. He supported the fact that the Government had cited his idea of mandatory reporting of clear and transparent data on health, environmental sustainability, and animal welfare impacts of food.
And he was encouraged the Government had mentioned a regular report to monitor: domestic food supply; the improvement of pay, employment, productivity and training; progress on the impact of unhealthy eating; environmental impact; export progress and maintainance of food standards. This report will draw on independent analysis from the Climate Change Committee, Food Standards Agency and the Office for Environment Protection.
In all, Dimbleby estimated half of what he had recommended had been supported by Government, either in its Food Strategy white paper or earlier papers.
Government Food Strategy: key points
- Work with industry to develop a long-term plan on CO2 supply in 2022 and a focus on pioneering more organic-based fertilisers
- Land use framework to be published in 2023 that will reflect all Government objectives for English agriculture
- £270m investment across farming innovation programmes to 2029 plus funding for farmers for new equipment
- Help for farmers to identify and develop low carbon farming practices and carbon storage opportunities.
- The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board to help develop a What Works Centre to share best practice among farmers
- A new Institute for Agriculture and Horticulture to launch in 2023 to help farmers and growers access the right skills
- £120m investment in alternative protein research and innovation
- Work with the FSA on guidance for approval of new alternative protein products, while reviewing Novel Food regulation
- An independent review to tackle labour shortages in the food supply chain
- increase use of other transport options where possible to reduce reliance on food distributed via heavy goods vehicles
- Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill to create laws allowing researchers and breeders to unlock benefits of gene editing
- £11m UK Research & Innovation/Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council initiative, the Diet & Health Open Innovation Research Club, to explore how ultra-processed foods could contribute to consumption of higher calorie foods
- Randomised control trials of interventions to encourage and enable healthier and more sustainable diets
- School leaders and governors to be required to publish a school food vision on their websites
- Schools to have greater support in procuring high quality and value for money food, through the ‘Get Help Buying for Schools’ service
- Launch of Food Data Transparency Partnership offering information to enable consumers to make more sustainable, ethical, and healthier food choices
- UK and devolved governments and agencies plus other stakeholders to develop consistent and defined metrics to objectively measure the health, environmental sustainability, and animal welfare impacts of food in retail and foodservice
- Streamlined reporting requirements for the production and sale of food and drink before 2024 in England
- Consultation on mandatory public reporting of health, sustainability and animal welfare metrics by large companies, including Scope 3 emissions and mandatory method for those producing eco labels or making sustainability claims about products
- Exploration of mandatory ways of displaying country of origin information on packs
- 10 agri-food attachés across the world to support UK food and drink exporters
- A new Export Council to boost exports