Jamie Oliver’s Sugar Tax – Time for the FDF to wake up

In the past decade there have been a handful of notable campaigns led by chefs/personalities to address food issues which have had a real impact.  Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall’s Fish Fight campaign added momentum to changes in EU regulation on secondary fish catches, to retailers broadening the fish sold in supermarkets and fishing techniques used by major fish processors.  And Jamie Oliver’s School Dinners campaign led to changes in government policy on school meals.  In both cases, the personalities led well-argued campaigns against genuine issues around our food chain – in the case of Fish Fight – that fish caught outside of quota were being thrown back into the sea instead of used, and in the case of Jamie’s School Meals campaign the fact that school meals often offered poor nutrition for school kids.

Another feature of the Fish Fight campaign in particular, was that those fish suppliers, brands and retailers that embraced the issues raised by Fearnley-Whitingstall ended up ahead of the game with consumers and those which resisted the arguments ultimately ended up being dragged there but found the experience more painful and probably more costly – missing the opportunity to benefit from positive PR and marketing messages

Now Jamie Oliver is launching a new campaign.  This time the target is added sugar and particularly its use in soft drinks.  He is proposing a 20p per litre tax on all drinks with added sugar.  He is also calling for moving from voluntary pledges in favour of legislation and sweeping new sugar reduction targets.

Personally I am not convinced by the idea of a sugar tax – evidence from the Danish “fat tax” is not convincing, and it seems to be a tax on the poor – which is hardly the point of taxation.  On top of that, the science is evolving pretty quickly, and there is increasing concern about the health impact of some sweeteners, so a tax which switched consumers from sugar to sweetener may not be as positive an outcome as one might believe.  However, these concerns aside, it does strike me that Oliver is not wrong to focus his attention on “hidden” sugar, even if his proposed remedies are not ones that I would select.

I was therefore pretty surprised to read in The Grocer a quote from Ian Wright, Director General of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF).  It felt like a time warp PR statement from big tobacco in the 1970’s: “It’s up to parents to decide what kids watch and what they eat and it’s certainly not up to self-appointed but ill-judged characters like Jamie Oliver.  This manifesto would be a curtailment of freedom and personal responsibility.  What’s next, would we have economic policy decided by Ian Beale”.   Whilst I understand and agree Wright’s aversion to a legislative or tax intervention being imposed on his members, it strikes me that simply “rubbishing” a popular figurehead with some justifiable concerns on the links between health and diet (in this case excessive sugar intake) risks being profoundly counter-productive.  I would also point out to the FDF that this so –called “ill-judged character” has created a highly successful food business based in the UK but with sales across the developed world.

If I were advising the soft drinks industry, I would advocate a significantly more collaborative approach. And with carbonate and juice markets apparently in long term decline, I would look at opportunities to reduce sugar and add positive nutritional benefits to bring consumers healthier choices in order to stem declines and drive growth. The UK food and drink industry can point to many positive precedents where it has played the lead collaborative role in reducing or exiting the use of certain ingredients or additives or changing practices in food processing or animal husbandry.  Surely collaboration on the realities of the issue is more likely to produce a positive outcome for all, than an ill-judged declaration of war on a popular figurehead who has a credible concern.