Has the National Food Strategy Plan bitten off more than it can chew?

The National Food Strategy Plan was envisaged as setting out a comprehensive plan to transform the food system... But has it gone too far?

In light of the twin constraints of Brexit and coronavirus the Strategy had been divided up into two parts: Part 1 of the Plan published in July 2020 has been relatively successful. It listed specific recommendations intended to help the most disadvantaged families eat well, protect the UK’s high food standards and ensure proper scrutiny of any trade deals.  Seven recommendations were made in total.  Four recommendations re healthy eating schemes, collating data and ensuring a report is prepared prior to any trade deal were implemented by the Government. Three other recommendations: giving preferential tariffs to food products which meet UK core standards, the time and opportunity proposed for Parliament to consider new trade deals and the recommendation to expand the eligibility for the free school meal scheme have not (so far) been implemented.

This month, July 2021, the second part of the Plan was published National-Food-Strategy-The-Plan.pdf (nationalfoodstrategy.org).

It is a lengthy document reflecting extensive dialogue within the food sector and is soaring in its’ ambitions and reach. At its’ heart is a message of sustainability and health. However, it is a particularly authoritarian and resource-heavy approach to a market and consumer driven sector.  

The most widely reported references to the sugar and salt tax have already been rejected by Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who was 'not attracted' to raising further taxes for this purpose.  This gives an indication that whilst some recommendations may be adopted there will be an overall reluctance to impose costly burdens on business or consumers. 

References are made to co-join investment in the food supply and healthy eating with the 'Innovation Strategy' unveiled by the Government this month and also to the push for public goods and carbon reduction within the Agriculture Act. 

However, the overall proposals of data collation for the public good overseen by IT expertise at government level, the division of land according to calorie resources, a general bias against the inefficient farming of animals, as opposed to fruit and vegetables or novel proteins, and a ‘Good Food Bill’ to guide a ‘Good Food Action Plan’ to the people may just be too big a bite of the fiscal pie for the government to swallow, or for our beleaguered food/hospitality sector and consumers themselves to tolerate.

The general undercurrents of the Strategy are however likely to have an impact. There is likely to be a gradual push towards greater data collection and overall clarity for the needs of the food supply. It is likely that resources will be provided for innovation within the food sector which particularly reference sustainability and healthier eating at their core.  The Obesity Strategy that is currently being legislated for looks at restricting certain promotions of foods high in fat, salt and sugar and so it is possible this may in the future seek to focus on a 'reference' healthy diet; (although the National Food Strategy is sadly deluded in its’ aspirations for one reference diet being applicable generally.)

One aspect of the recommendation for legislation that is likely to gain traction will be the proposal for a labelling system that sets out a harmonised approach to the environmental impacts of the food. Also, for the Government Buying Standards for Food (GBSF) to be redesigned and for there to be an overall push for healthier food options and education within communities. 

A more detailed look at the recommendations and those that are most pertinent to our clients in the food and agri sector is set out below.

The 14 recommendations are as follows:

Recommendation 1 Introduce a sugar and salt reformulation tax. Use some of the revenue to help get fresh fruit and vegetables to low income families.

Recommendation 2 Introduce mandatory reporting for large food companies.

Recommendation 3 Launch a new “Eat and Learn” initiative for schools.

Recommendation 4 Extend eligibility for free school meals.

Recommendation 5 Fund the Holiday Activities and Food programme for the next three years.

Recommendation 6 Expand the Healthy Start scheme.

Recommendation 7 Trial a “Community Eatwell” programme, supporting those on low incomes to improve their diets.

Recommendation 8 Guarantee the budget for agricultural payments until at least 2029 to help farmers transition to more sustainable land use.

Recommendation 9 Create a rural land use framework based on the Three Compartment Model.

Recommendation 10 Define minimum standards for trade, and a mechanism for protecting them.

Recommendation 11 Invest £1 billion in innovation to create a better food system.

Recommendation 12 Create a National Food System Data programme.

Recommendation 13 Strengthen government procurement rules to ensure that taxpayer money is spent on healthy and sustainable food

Recommendation 14 Set clear targets and bring in legislation for long-term change

Some of these recommendations are going to be budget dependent and in the aftermath of covid may not be as realistic as hoped.

sugar and salt reformulation tax

The recommendations that received the most immediate media attention was the reference to a sugar and salt reformulation tax. 

This proposes a £3/kg tax on sugar and a £6/kg tax on salt sold for use in processed foods or in restaurants and catering businesses.  The reasoning is that this will push reformulation and where this is not possible the increased cost will act as a deterrent to the ultimate consumer.   

It is stated the tax would apply to all sugar and other ingredients used for sweetening (such as syrups and fruit extracts, but not raw fruit) at a rate of £3/kg. This is approximately the same rate as the current Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL), which the sugar tax is proposed to replace. It would apply at a rate of £6/kg to all salt sold for use in food manufacturing. As salt is used in much smaller quantities than sugar, the rate needs to be higher in order to achieve an impact.  It is proposed that imports of processed food should also be taxed according to sugar and salt content when they enter the UK.  In order to exempt ingredients used in home cooking it is suggested either taxing sales to manufacturers and food service businesses, or by taxing all sales of sugar and salt when they leave the factory gate and then allowing supermarkets to claim a rebate for sales to consumers.

The plan looks at the difficulties incumbent in this recommendation; for example if the price of food were to increase it is argued it will have it’s balancing aspect of promoting ‘healthier’ choices contained in other recommendations (eatwell scheme). It is accepted there will be associated costs for food businesses whereby some businesses may have the advantage of economies of scale for reformulation.  Additionally, some areas of difficulty in achieving such a tax regime are noted; the potential for some to take advantage and the specifics of differentiating between different types of ingredient and their end product.  

The plan, whilst very detailed, also fails to look at the aspects of overall calorie intake as opposed to simply equating sugar and salt with overly processed foods as the key culprit in health and obesity.   Food is notoriously difficult to pigeon hole and the causes of obesity multi-factorial. The time, costs constraints of many consumers are unlikely to be affected, as well as increased sedentary lifestyles are referenced but more in the context of not being able to ‘outrun’ a poor diet.

This recommendation, if implemented, will undoubtedly make food more expensive. Reformulation, extra bureaucracy and tax may well mean that food and retailer companies seek to recoup losses more widely. It is also not clear how the tariff proposals for imported food for processed foods will impact on future trade deals.

Mandatory reporting for large food companies

All food businesses with over 250 employees should have a legal duty to publish annual data on their sales of various product types as well as food waste. This duty would extend to retailers, restaurants and fast food outlets, contract caterers, wholesalers, manufacturers and online ordering platforms.  Food businesses with a franchising model would be treated as the sum of their franchisees operating under the same brand.

The report should include figures (both value in sterling and volume in tonnes) for: • Sales of food and drink high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS) excluding alcohol. • Sales of protein by type (of meat, dairy, fish, plant, or alternative protein) and origin.• Sales of vegetables. • Sales of fruit. • Sales of major nutrients: fibre, saturated fat, sugar and salt. • Food waste • Total food and drink sales.  

The metrics should be reviewed every five years.

This is recommendation is unlikely to be received well by a food sector that is currently struggling with the very basic tenants of supply and will inevitably provide for greater red tape and costs.  There is a dichotomy between seeking to reduce red tape and bureaucracy for business and requiring greater information so that waste etc may be reduced. It is in any event required that some level of reporting is carried out and it is in companies interests that waste is reduced so there is a real argument that further government involvement here would not be helpful.   

Guarantee the budget for agricultural payments until at least 2029 to help farmers transition to more sustainable land use

This recommendation argues Defra should guarantee the budget for agricultural funding until 2029, maintaining it at its current level of £2.4bn (in real terms). It should ring-fence £500m–£700m of this money for natural carbon removal and restoring semi-natural habitats

The Strategy sets out that farms must be supported and incentivised to reduce their total environmental impact, in order to help meet a range of national targets, the most notable of which are the “30x30” commitment to protect 30% of land in England for nature by 2030, the 25 year plan for nature, and the net zero target and carbon budgets.  Changing the way agricultural land is used will be central to restoring nature and achieving net zero goals.

Create a Rural Land Use Framework based on the Three Compartment Model

It is recommended that Defra should then put together the Rural Land Use Framework and publish this as a report. ‘This should provide detailed assessments of the best way to use any given area of land, and inform the many existing incentive schemes and land-based strategies in Defra. The framework should set out the best way to achieve a “three compartment model” for the country, including which land is most appropriate for semi-natural land, low-yield farmland and high yield farmland, as well as land that is appropriate for economic development and housing. It should be clear how the model can help meet the Government’s legal commitments to reach net zero by 2050, and protect 30% of land for nature by 2030 (the “30x30” target). The report would be updated annually.’

It is stated that much of the agricultural land that produces our least calories is high priority land for carbon and nature and that it is possible to ‘grow enough forest on our least productive agricultural land to reach our net zero goals’.

The importance of data collection for best land use was stressed; however none of the difficulties of actually how to repurpose the land use was touched upon.

Define minimum standards for trade, and a mechanism for protecting them

The Government should draw up a list of core minimum standards which it will defend in any future trade deals. These should cover animal welfare, environment and health protection, carbon emissions, antimicrobial resistance, and zoonotic disease risk. The Government must then set out which mechanisms it intends to use to protect these standards.

So far the Government has implemented the Trade Agriculture Commission as a check for Parliament on trade deals. It is uncertain that they will go further with this (please see earlier post Trade & Agriculture Commission sets out framework for post-Brexit trade policy - Mills & Reeve: Food Law (food-law-blog.co.uk).)

Invest £1 billion in innovation to create a better food system.

Reference is made to the UK governments ‘Innovation Strategy’, which aims to make the UK the world’s most innovative nation by 2035, and to harness innovation to address social and environmental goals.  New plans to put UK at front of global innovation race - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

This Innovation Strategy was separately publicised by the Government and separately stated the strategy to increase annual public investment on R&D to a record £22 billion and to publish of a new action plan on ‘Standards for the Fourth Industrial Revolution’, promoting standards that enable innovation to flourish and invest £200 million through the British Business Bank’s Life Sciences Investment Programme to target the growth-stage funding gap faced by UK life science companies. Gene editing is specifically mentioned and this in conjunction with earlier consultation is a clear indication of the UK’s trajectory (see previous blog Defra consultation looks set to relax restrictions on gene editing in farming - Mills & Reeve: Food Law (food-law-blog.co.uk).)

The National Food Strategy argues that rather than pursuing innovative products the funds should be used to help shift the national diet. This might include accelerating work to reformulate processed foods, trying out new ways of helping customers change their habits, and boost locally led initiatives to improve diet and health.  However, certain innovative practice are mentioned such as developing new ways of growing food, such as vertical farming and precision fermentation. Separately, Defra has already budgeted £280m to support innovation as part of its Agricultural Transition Plan. This  Agricultural Transition Plan sets out Defra’s plans for a seven-year transition period to phase out the subsidies and schemes of the Common Agricultural Policy and introduce Defra’s own domestic policy for farming and the countryside in England that includes sustainability and environmental goals at its heart but also controversially pushing an ‘exit plan’ for some UK farmers. 

The National Food Strategy specifically argues for targeting some investment towards methane reduction technologies, such as feed additives for sheep and cattle and support for agroecological methods of farming. Additionally a strong argument is made against meat farming the Strategy argues it is important to cut back on animal proteins. ‘85% of the land used to feed us is used for livestock farming, even though meat and dairy only account for one third of our calories. Plant-based proteins produce, on average, 70 times less greenhouse gas emissions than an equivalent amount of beef, and use more than 150 times less land.35 The potential global market for alternative proteins is huge.’

Create a National Food System Data programme.

It is recommended by the Strategy that this national programme should be in two parts; the first will be data about the land, as collected for the Rural Land Use Framework (Recommendation 9). The second is data from beyond the farm gate: on food production, distribution and retail, and the environmental and health impacts of that food. It is recommended these two tasks should be connected through a single programme. Whilst this may help to anticipate where there are gaps in supply it is accepted there are likely to be problems in relation to competition and confidentiality. To assist this a “layered” permissions model, to control access to different layers of information, is envisaged.  Additionally, that a team of the Chief Scientific Advisers at Defra, DHSC, BEIS and the FSA should work together to establish a specialist team of civil servants – including IT experts and strategists – to set baseline data definitions, standards and hierarchies – that should then identify gaps in the existing data, and broker agreements with third parties – such as retailers or unions – to fill in these gaps without breaching confidentiality.

Strengthen Government procurement rules to ensure that taxpayer money is spent on healthy and sustainable food.

It is stated the Government Buying Standards for Food (GBSF) should be redesigned to ensure that taxpayer money is spent on food that is both healthy and sustainable. An updated reference diet, set out in Recommendation 14, (below) is stated should be used to set these standards.

Set clear targets and bring in legislation for long-term change.

The key to this recommendation is stated to be a legally binding target to halt biodiversity loss in England by 2030. Also, by creating a statutory target to improve diet-related health through a Good Food Bill.  It is stated that the role of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) should be expanded to cover healthy and sustainable food as well as food safety.

Specific aspects of this new FSA role would include:

  • Developing an updated “reference diet” for the nation, in line with our health and sustainability goals. This would create a single reference point to underpin policies and advice.
  • Working with Defra and the IGD to develop a harmonised and consistent food labelling system to describe the environmental impacts of food products

 A general nutrition profile for food high in fat salt and sugar (HFSS) has so far eluded the European Commission and the only profile available is one created by the Department of Health 2004 to 2005 Nutrient Profiling Model  Microsoft Word - Nutrient Profiling_DH template.doc (publishing.service.gov.uk).  The broad-brush approach seeking to specify a particular 'reference diet' neglects the particular nutritional needs of individuals and the particular nutritional value of certain foods ie cheeses, high in fat but also nutrients.  

A labelling system to provide for a harmonised approach to environmental impacts of food products is one that may be much more feasible and popular and this should be kept under review by food and agri companies. 

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