Health zealots will end up taking food off our tables
First published in the Sunday Times on 22nd May 2016.
I have made my living in the food and drink industry for almost 25 years. I have opened, owned and run hundreds of restaurants, pubs, bakeries and cafes, and played a modest part in the transformation of Britain into a nation of foodies. This glorious change — for example, London is now perhaps the greatest dining city in the world — is something to be celebrated. I believe there is no more important, interesting and basic industry than food and drink.
But in recent times I have become concerned by what I believe is the demonisation of certain categories of food and drink — and in particular some ingredients, such as sugar and gluten. There are more and more attacks on the food industry, and ever more clamours for regulation. From the NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens to the TV superchef Jamie Oliver — whom we at Channel 4 made famous — there are attempts to portray obesity and poor diets as the “new smoking”. The medical fraternity encourages the idea of an epidemic of food allergies.
Unfortunately, the extraordinary diversity and productivity of our food and drink sector is too often ignored. The activists discount or forget the value added, the exports, the innovations and the jobs.
The hospitality industry has created more UK jobs in the past 10 years than any other sector. For a huge proportion of citizens, food and drink are not simply about nutrition and survival — they are one of their greatest pleasures. But sadly the health campaigners are repeating the strategies they pursued with the tobacco industry — mandatory labelling, increased taxes and levies, restricted marketing, and much tougher environmental health legislation.
All this is likely to lead to less investment and less choice, as certain goods become uneconomic to produce. I have worked in both banking and television — industries much more regulated than food production and service. I can tell you that we do not want to end up in the same over-burdened place. But what the so-called experts so often omit to mention is cost. Tougher regulation will translate into higher prices, which will hit the poor hardest.
Generally, high-quality food and drink is incredibly cheap in this country, because we have a very advanced and competitive sector with a dizzying array of choice. And the inventiveness of the food business is astonishing — no other sector makes so many novel goods on a continuous basis. But parts of the media and the UK’s health establishment are overtly critical of the big food producers — and this needs addressing. In a free, democratic country, we should not allow the nanny state to impose its eating diktats on the public.
Announced in this year’s budget was a sugar tax on soft drinks, due to be introduced in 2018. Yet fruit juices and small producers are exempt. The move has been criticised as patronising, regressive and inconsistent. According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, overall sugar consumption has fallen 16% since 1992, without any sugar tax. Also, we already pay 20% VAT on confectionery, crisps and soft drinks — whereas most foods and drinks are zero-rated. Sugary drinks provide just 3% of the nation’s calorie intake; the idea that taxing them would make a material difference shows the campaigners haven’t really done their sums.
Everyone disapproves of ill health and obesity, but knee-jerk, unwise legislation is not the answer.
The government’s childhood obesity strategy is due out very soon. I hope it is a thoughtful document, rather than one that just lays into food makers.
I believe the sugar tax is not the only threat to the food industry; I suspect there are many within the health establishment who would like to see restrictions on fat and calorie content in many packaged foods.
They see this as a moral crusade, and claim that obesity rates are spiralling ever upwards. Yet the number of overweight children has not risen for 10 years. And according to recent research from Goldman Sachs, citing government data, UK average calories consumed daily have been falling for more than 10 years, while admissions to hospital with obesity as a primary diagnosis peaked five years ago.
But of course these inconvenient facts do not accord with the world-view of the health zealots, who see it as their role to boss around ordinary people, because these “experts” are condescending snobs. Rather than regulation and demonisation, consumers need choice, education and sensible advice about moderation, balance in their diets and exercise. The food and drink industry should make a positive case for well-rounded diets, pushing back against misguided interventions that are likely to have unintended consequences.