A key recommendation from the Prime Minister’s food tsar to tax sugar and salt is set to be rejected when the Government sets out its food strategy in the next few weeks.
The Prime Minister signalled his opposition last summer, saying he was “not attracted” to taxes, but suggested that he would read Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy, which had the levies as its top recommendation.
But a Whitehall source confirmed that “the PM was clear on taxes last summer and that won’t change” when the Government White Paper on food strategy is published, potentially next month.
An industry source said the food sector would be pleased with the decision and suggested that even if Mr Johnson wanted to change his mind on taxes he would struggle to get any new levies past backbenchers who already believe the state is too big.
Campaigners described the decision as “short-sighted”, however, and an “opportunity missed” to incentivise businesses to make their food healthier.
Mr Dimbleby, the co-founder of Leon restaurants, was asked by the Government to devise a strategy for the entire food chain, including production, marketing, processing, sale and purchase of food.
Its top recommendation to the Government last summer was a “sugar and salt reformulation tax” with some of the revenue used to help get fresh fruit and vegetables to low-income families.
Launching the report last July, Mr Dimbleby said he did not think this would increase prices, but would instead encourage food producers to reformulate their products by taking sugar and salt out.
Mr Johnson was immediately cold on the idea, stressing he was “not… attracted to the idea of extra taxes on hardworking people”.
In a recent interview, Mr Dimbleby suggested the comments did not knock his confidence because “nobody” would be in favour of taxes.
But the PM is set to hold his line in the Government’s response to the strategy.
Campaigners are holding out hope that he will at least accept Mr Dimbleby’s recommendations for mandatory reporting for food companies to set out how they are encouraging healthier eating, and for Government procurement rules to be tightened so taxpayers’ cash is spent on healthy and sustainable food.
Barbara Crowther, children’s food campaign co-ordinator at the charity Sustain, said campaigners would continue to push for taxes in order to “break the junk food cycle”.
She said the 2018 sugary drinks tax was the “single most impactful policy in reducing the amount of sugar in soft drinks” and this had a greater impact in lower-income households where there is a greater risk of obesity.
“We can see how these policies fundamentally encourage businesses to change what they are doing.
“Therefore we need to ask: how will healthy food reformulation take place in a way that incentivises business to move at speed to make their products healthier?
“So while we absolutely support initiatives like mandatory reporting, it’s also vital to incentivise business to go faster by using the tax system to make it harder to produce products high in fat and salt and sugar.
“So it is an opportunity missed if the Government doesn’t include use of fiscal measures.”
She added: “The sweet thing about a levy is that not only does it incentivise business to make their products healthier, it also raises revenues for the Government to invest in tackling health improvements.
“If that money can be levied from business making their products healthier which in turn is helping the public also become healthier as part of our Covid recovery agenda and if it is also putting more money into the health service and healthier programmes in our schools for children, then we’ve got a win-win.
“So it would be very short-sighted if the Government were to ignore the recommendation.”