National Food Strategy: the giant omelette that breaks no eggs

By Tom Tanner, Sustainable Restaurant Association

After what seemed like an age, the government finally published its National Food Strategy for England. Publication has been greeted with the full range of food metaphors – none of them flattering: flat as a pancake or thin gruel. Take your pick. 

The strategy followed the two reports published by Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of both Leon and the Sustainable Restaurant Association. He’d been asked to design recommendations so that our food system: “Delivers safe, healthy, affordable food; regardless of where people live or how much they earn” and “restores and enhances, the natural environment for the next generation in this country.” He delivered wide-ranging and undeniably progressive recommendations to fix our broken food system. 

Henry Dimbleby’s response to the government’s strategy? “It’s not a strategy and it doesn’t set out a clear vision as to why we have the problems we have now, and it doesn’t set out what needs to be done.” Pretty fundamental flaws for a strategy. 

In terms of the specifics of what’s not in it… 

There is very little, if anything, to tackle the obesity epidemic, with no mention of a sugar and salt tax to fund healthy food options, which the man asked to deliver solutions, had put forward.  

Nothing either on reducing carbon intensive meat consumption or increasing animal welfare standards. Dimbleby had recommended a 30% reduction. So, what is in the strategy – and specifically what will affect foodservice operators?  

Consultations – there are plenty of them lined up. One of them has been flagged by us and many others for some time – on mandatory food waste reporting. We’ll be communicating with businesses in our network more on this in the coming weeks to support with appropriate and potentially coordinated submissions. But, if your business ticks two of the following criteria, then you might want to start checking out the consultation document and preparing your responses: does your business employ more than 250 people, have a turnover of more than £36m or annual balance sheet total of £18m?  

The government is launching the Food Data Transparency Partnership. This new body will, they say, “champion consumer interests, providing people with the information they need to make more sustainable, ethical, and healthier food choices, and incentivise industry to produce healthier and more ethical and sustainable food.” It’ll do this by corralling government, other agencies, civil society and representatives from the whole supply chain to develop defined metrics for measuring health, environmental sustainability and animal welfare. It’ll also look at how these metrics are communicated to consumers and endeavour to ensure they follow an agreed set of principles. 

Following up on the Green Claims Code, launched by the Competition and Markets Authority earlier this year, there will also be a new mandatory methodology for anyone wanting to produce eco labels or make claims about sustainability in their business.  .

For caterers, look out for the consultation on Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering Services and specifically what the strategy describes as an ‘aspirational target’ that at least half of food spend in the public sector is on food produced locally or certified to higher environmental standards. This does come with the caveat, perhaps understandable, ‘while maintaining value for money for taxpayers’. 

In it’s very brief conclusion, the report says: “This strategy is the beginning of this conversation.” Most people were hoping and expecting to hear more now.  

Of slightly less direct impact on foodservice operators, but still of interest to many, the government is investing £24m in innovation in aquaculture, an industry that certainly has the potential to lift pressure on seafood stocks, but needs careful management. There is also a commitment to a land use strategy and support for growing more fruit and veg here in the UK, notably tomatoes and cucumbers. 

Another in the series of consultations, or as this one is called, a call for evidence, into the use of feed additives to reduce emissions for livestock. This is part of a wider programme to establish a ‘What Works Centre’ which will share best practice and information about new sustainability innovations. 

Our clever friends at Sustain have created a clever tool to determine which of Dimbleby’s 14 recommendations have been acted on. Treat yourself to a quick game of food strategy bingo here.

In food terms though, there is precious little to sink your teeth into and a once in a generation opportunity feels like an attempt to make a giant omelette without breaking any eggs. 

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