A salt and sugar tax doesn’t make much sense

17 July 2021

8:41 AM

17 July 2021

8:41 AM

What is the point of the National Food Strategy? When Henry Dimbleby was hired as Britain’s ‘food tsar’ several years ago, the idea was to develop some blue sky thinking and to have someone look at the issue with a fresh pair of eyes, but when he produced his first report last year, it contained the same generic, flat-pack, bone-headed, nanny-state recommendations that every other voice of the establishment had been calling for. So predictable were his conclusions that the government had already committed itself to implementing most of them by the time it was published and he resorted to moaningabout Percy Pigs to give himself an angle.

The second part of the strategy has now been published and it is, incredibly, even worse than the first. Having given up ventriloquising for Public Health England, Dimbleby is now taking his ideas directly from the man in the pub. ‘What I reckon, right, is if you whack up the price of junk food, yeah, and give people vegetables for free, you won’t have obesity no more. S’obvious!’

To this end, he proposes a £3 per kilogram tax on sugar and a £6 per kilogram tax on salt, with the stated aim of encouraging food companies to ‘reformulate’ their products. As a chaser, he is calling for GPs to prescribe fruit and vegetables to their fat patients for free.

It is an indication of how much this country has lost its mind that these ideas were not immediately laughed out of the room. Instead, chin-stroking commentators on breakfast radio adopted them as their own and the sugar/salt tax was pinned to the top of the BBC News website. Perhaps this is meant to provide light relief from more serious issues, but let us recall for a moment what those issues are.

We have just had the deepest recession in 300 years. GDP remains well below pre-pandemic levels and inflation is growing rapidly. Incomes have shrunk, jobs have been lost and the cost of living is rising. Five million people are on NHS waiting lists and you will be lucky to see a GP face to face to get a prescription for penicillin, let alone for a pineapple. The idea that doctors are going to waste what little time they have with patients by calling them fat and issuing them with a box of vegetables is preposterous. The idea that we should force consumers to pay an extra £3 billion to eat – which is Dimbleby’s own estimate of the taxes’ cost, though it is likely to be closer to £5 billion – should be regarded as a moral outrage.

At the core of these proposals is the bizarre and demonstrably false belief that ‘junk food’ is cheap and ‘healthy’ food is expensive. There is a reason why vegetables have been the staple food of the world’s poor for most of human history and that is because they are cheap. Thanks to the wonders of the agricultural revolution and globalisation, they are now cheaper than ever. Supermarkets virtually give the stuff away. You can pick up a big bag of carrots for 40p and get a bunch of bananas for 60p.

Almost everything on the government’s ‘Eat Well’ plate is inexpensive. Chicken is cheaper than red meat. Starchy carbohydrates such as potatoes, pasta and rice can be bought for pennies. Vegetables – frozen, tinned or fresh – cost next to nothing. Half a dozen apples or bananas cost less than a chocolate bar. The only element of a ‘healthy diet’ that is a bit pricier is fish, but you can still pick up a can of tuna for under a pound.

Where is the evidence that the British public have a latent desire to eat more vegetables? Is broccoli the first thing to run out at all-you-can-eat buffets? Do people pile their plates high with fruit and veg when they go on all-inclusive holidays? No, they eat pork chops and chips just like they do at home.

The notion that consumers give vegetables the swerve because they are too expensive is one of the weirdest lies paternalists tell themselves to avoid the truth that people know what they like and don’t particularly like turnips. Nor do people buy ‘junk food’ because it is cheap. If anyone should understand this, it is Henry Dimbleby who founded Leon, an upmarket burger joint where fast food is sold in pretty packaging to the middle classes. Their vegan burger will provide you with most of your recommended daily salt allowance – more than a Big Mac – plus six grams of sugar, but that’s alright because it’s gluten-free. Their ‘Better Brownie’ contains 29 grams of sugar (the recommended daily amount is 30 grams), but it is not only gluten-free but wheat-free.

Dimbleby is no longer involved with Leon, but he might ask his successors at the oh-so-ethical food chain why they have not ‘reformulated’ these products. The answer, as he must know deep in his soul, is that no one would buy them.

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