Boris Johnson has said now is not time to “start whacking new taxes” on unhealthy food to tackle obesity – and claimed the solution is to “eat less”.
Mr Johnson was defending a new food strategy which ignores some of the recommendations made in a major review by Henry Dimbleby – including a salt and sugar tax.
The proposals, which were being published in full on Monday, will have a key focus on boosting food security – with aims including higher UK production and addressing labour shortages in the sector.
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Mr Dimbleby, co-founder of the Leon restaurant chain, has said it represents some progress but insists that “it is not a strategy as such” and criticised what he sees as the fragmented nature of policy making in government over the issue.
Labour said the government plan was “nothing more than a statement of vague intentions” while farming group Sustain said that in the face of multiple crises including the cost of living, climate change and obesity it looked “shamefully weak”.
But the PM told reporters that the government was “supporting great British farming, putting money into a modernisation, into innovation”.
He denied that the government was failing to tackle obesity, saying it had worked with the food and drink industry to reduce salt and sugar levels in food.
The prime minister added: “What we don’t want to do right now is start whacking new taxes on them that will just push up the cost of food.”
He cited the current economic climate in which “everybody can see the effects of the global energy price spike”.
“Of course we’ve got to champion healthy eating, got to help people lose weight, there are all sorts of ways of doing that,” the PM added.
“Best way to lose weight, believe me, is to eat less.”
Farming minister Victoria Prentis, asked why the government had ignored suggestions to introduce a sugar and salt tax, told LBC such a levy would be “quite a blunt” instrument , adding that “voluntary initiatives” could work instead.
But Mr Dimbleby offered a stark view of the problems caused by what the nation eats, telling Sky News: “We have a food system that makes us sick.
“The poorest neighbourhoods die seven years earlier on average – people who live in them – than the richest.
“The large part of that is down to food.
“It is destroying the environment. It is not sustainable.”
He also argued the amount spent on children’s free school meals – frozen for years at £2.30 a day – effectively means less money is available to pay for nutritious food for poorer children.
“In the end our food system will change because by definition it can’t survive as it is,” Mr Dimbleby said.
“But in order to have the kind of boldness of action and the courage and the link and the join-up it does need to be coordinated more clearly across government.”
Later on Monday, Environment Secretary George Eustice told MPs the government will “bring forward another 10,000 visas for the seasonal workers route and expand the scheme to cover poultry”.
Making a Commons statement on the Government Food Strategy, he said: “Our fresh produce industry has always required access to seasonal labour and I’m pleased to announce today that we will bring forward another 10,000 visas for the seasonal workers route and expand the scheme to cover poultry.”