Is the Government set for a 'food fight' to tackle Britain's obesity crisis?
As we await the publication of the Food White Paper, Senior Consultant Michael Dowsett asks whether the Government will use this as an opportunity to take long-overdue action to tackle the country’s obesity crisis.
Though the Government is currently celebrating lifting the last remaining COVID-19 restrictions, any heralding of ‘freedom day’ sits awkwardly with the legacy of the pandemic that we will likely be grappling with for years to come. This is no more so the case than with the NHS, where even an extra cash injection through the National Insurance hike is set to do little to arrest soaring waiting lists.
With the health service set for a challenging few years ahead, one would think now would be the ideal time to tackle some of the underlying causes of rising health costs, not least the nation’s obesity crisis. Our expanding waistlines are set to cost the NHS almost £10bn by 2050 (up from £6.1bn in 2014/15). Given that, it seems surprising that the Government-commissioned review by Leon-founder Henry Dimbleby into the UK’s food system ‘from farm to fork’ – published last July – has seemingly been kicked into the political long grass, having been due a response in the form of a Food White Paper at the start of the year.
It wasn’t that long ago that even our freedom-loving, anti-nanny state Prime Minister was seen to be coming around to the idea of tackling the cost of obesity. Leaving hospital two years ago, having spent time in an intensive care unit with COVID-19, Boris Johnson declared that it wasn’t a good idea to be a “fatty in your fifties.” A year later though, when Dimbleby’s report was released, the PM had apparently returned to traditional Boris-fare, dismissing the key recommendation for a new sugar and salt tax as ‘an extra tax on hardworking people’.
More recently, with the PM hemmed in by backbenchers following the ‘partygate’ scandal, Number 10 looks set to junk key elements of its anti-obesity strategy (published in 2020), such as new restrictions on the promotion of certain foods in shops. Given his initial response to Dimbleby, many will wonder how much – if any – resistance the PM put up in defence of the Government’s previous fat-fighting policies.
The die therefore looks to be cast, with Dimbleby set to join the fourteen government obesity strategies published in the last three decades gathering dust on a shelf in Whitehall.
Or is it? In a recent interview with Politics Home, Dimbleby himself struck an upbeat tone. A key reason for this is the views of food businesses themselves, many of whom would perhaps be expected to man the barricades against further ‘nanny state’ measures to regulate our food. To the contrary, Dimbleby worked with businesses in the process of developing his recommendations, and several have written privately to the Prime Minister to call for more food regulations and even taxes to be introduced.
Here then is the key that may unpick the lock of making real progress in the fight against obesity. If businesses see their long-term interests – both commercially and reputationally – better protected by breaking out of the ‘junk food cycle’, it opens up the possibility of even a Conservative government introducing significant changes to the way we produce and consume food in this country.
In addition, with the pandemic highlighting the pressures many families face to eat well (most famously brought to light through Marcus Rashford’s free school meals campaign) and current cost of living pressures set to exacerbate ‘food poverty’ for many families – particularly when it comes to eating a balanced diet – the argument for government intervention to help those on the margins is arguably becoming stronger.
So the balance of forces may be shifting. But with the current policy ‘food fight’, still in the foothills awaiting the White Paper, a Prime Minister beholden to Conservative MPs and the impact of any concerted counter-mobilisation from within the industry against Dimbleby’s proposals yet to be felt, the end result remains up for grabs.