VEGA News Item

Read Those Labels! - 07/04/2010

What’s Natural About Dietary Fats?

1.  Differential taxes on “healthy” and junk foods and drinks has been mooted many times over the years from the end of WW2. In the EU the workings of free trade regulations precluded some fiscal adjustments as long as labelling was clear. VEGA argued for many years that home-grown or home-produced dairy products did not match descriptions as being “natural”, as they were mammary excretions from a different species of natural consumer and not even natural for a grown up bull, let alone an adult human consumer. Moreover, the reproduction that accompanied the lactation was induced by artificial insemination – nothing natural about that; and the British cow’s output was achieved by “unnatural” feeding with feeds of soya, maize, and other cereals (such as “prairie meal”). And cheese, the refined fat from these already unnatural products were no more British than, say, an MG car assembled in Birmingham from components imported from China. “Country of origin” was covered by the place where the product was finally packed for sale or use, with some special restrictions, eg for parmesan cheese, but not cheddar.

2.  So retailers could begin with a lot of excuses in tackling definitions of healthy and junk foods. However, definitions of, say, confectionery and food and differential levies of VAT were practicable and had been long used in efforts at curbing sales of beers, wines, and cigarets – and now, with extreme effect, cider. There was also that feckless customer who paid the rising costs of, say, beer, compensating by trading down on less untaxed fruit and veg.

3.  VEGA’s first attempts at differential taxing set rates on the contents of animal versus plant protein or fat content, but this had drawbacks, not completely resolved after the Food Standards Agency (FSA) decided to concentrate on the fat, sugar, and salt contents of the components covered in its profiles. At the end of March this year the FSA announced its decision to aim at a fat tax, using it as an incentive to encourage consumers to eat more healthily. Announcing the intentions Tim Smith, the FSA’s chief executive, told the EU’s Food Law Journal that price could not be ignored and that the FSA was considering how incentives and penalties could work in terms of choice editing. Further, the FSA would also look at whether varying VAT rates for different classes of foods would impact on consumption levels. The FSA Board was planning to discuss the matter in the autumn; any proposals would be aimed at reducing salt, saturated fat, and sugar in consumption.

4.  We understand that Smith has recently spent time in the USA studying President Obama’s plans to tax carbonated soft drinks and divert the revenue into the healthcare budget. Although there remain some difficulties to overcome – some requiring more compositional information of manufacturers – we see possibilities in adopting these practices in interpretations in our Portfolio of Eating Plans and are seeking help from food scientists with powerful equipment at hand for assessments aimed at breads and comparisons of recipes. Consumers wanting to cut down on their meat and dairy can start easily by replacing dairy (animal derivation) with plant milks, nut butters, and oils rather than hardened fats. Reduction of plate size or frequency of consumption of, say, pizzas or quiches can easily be controlled and measured for effect, as can replacement of butter in a recipe be tried with vegetable fats in a quantitative manner, but comparisons of, say, one brand of sausage with another may need more attention unless a complete substitution with a meat-and dairy-free veggieburger is attempted.

5.  Industry insiders and legal experts have scorned the FSA’s plans for a fat tax. The Tory Health spokesman Andrew Lansley has said that if his party gained power at the General Election it would strip the FSA of all responsibility for diet and nutrition strategy, leaving it to focus solely on food safety. In this case the FSA would be denied the chance to carry through its autumn plans. However, the lawyers regard it as a non-starter whoever wins at the Election. Owen Warnock, a food lawyer at the law firm Eversheds, essayed an explanation: “Unlike alcohol or tobacco the health impact of certain foods is much more debatable. Where would you draw the line? Plus, there would be no attraction for government in terms of driving revenue.” He added: “Unlike cigaret tax, which could be relied on as a revenue driver, a food tax was likely to prompt people to eat less or switch to a cheaper alternative; its only benefit would be health – and this not be enough.” What a gloomy conclusion that is!


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