Calls to get tougher on the cost of sugar and its supply after Brexit

A report from the Centre for Food Policy proposes limiting the amount of sugar sold in the UK and to penalising food manufacturers for using it.

21 February 2019
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image credit: Getty Images

While many people in the food industry view impending Brexit with gloom, there are some who see it as an opportunity to improve the nation’s diet. A new report released today is calling on the UK government to take control and limit the supply of sugar to reduce consumption.

The Centre for Food Policy (CFP) wants officials to increase the price that food manufacturers have to pay for sugar, among a raft of other initiatives.

In 2015, the government recommended that sugar intake should account for no more than 5% of the daily diet – the equivalent of seven teaspoons – but current campaigns like the tax on soft drinks and the voluntary sugar reduction programme aren’t doing enough to achieve this target, according to the CFP.

In fact, achieving the 5% objective would require a two-thirds reduction in average sugar consumption – a drop of 1.7m tonnes a year, suggesting looking to consumers to lower their sugar intake isn’t the answer.

Sugar has also been consistently moved around the food system, being taken out of some products and added to others in ways that escape regulatory initiatives and consumer awareness, said professors from the University of Warwick and London Metropolitan University. The caloric sweetening of low-fat yoghurts, breakfast bars, fruit-filled muffins and ready-made sandwiches provides just a few recent examples.

The EU currently regulates the supply of sugar, which has resulted in increasingly cheaper prices. Brexit, therefore, is an opportunity to jack up the cost.

100 companies buy 10,000 tonnes of sugar a year

Over 2.4m tonnes of beet and cane sugar were sold in the UK in 2017-18, with estimations suggesting around 87% of this was purchased for manufactured food and drink.

Yet legislation to raise the price of sugar would not be a burden on consumers, according to the report. It found the cost of sugar accounts for only a tiny percentage of the retail price of even the sweetest food and drinks.

“Even if higher sugar prices were passed on in full, they would barely register in the weekly shopping bill. Rather than reducing sugar consumption by affecting the purchasing decisions of consumers, the intent of supply-side policies would be to target manufacturers by encouraging them to reduce the use of sugar across their product portfolios,” it explained. “This is especially the case for the hundred or so companies in the UK that routinely buy more than 10,000 tonnes of sugar per year and can be considered more price sensitive than other buyers of sugar.”

It could also be a win for alternative sweeteners like aspartame, stevia, monkfruit and even hollowed-out sugar crystals by making them relatively cheap to use for reformulation. Meanwhile, a higher price for sugar could help offset lost revenue to domestic beet farmers, it added.

In a no-deal Brexit scenario, government might not even have to lift a finger. WTO tariffs applied on imports would double the price of sugar – though this cost hike would likely be passed on to consumers.

Government policy is contradictory

Other policy options suggested by the CFP include marketing quotas, excise taxes, subsidy reform, and regulation of product composition and labelling.

A marketing quota would work by limiting the amount of sugar that could be sold within the UK, either through controls on production and import or via licensing for major industrial buyers. The report also proposed levying a sugar tax on manufacturers utilising the sweet stuff in particular types of food products.

Another idea mooted is the gradual elimination of payments for land used to grow sugar beet, with about 3,500 farmers in East Anglia and the East Midlands currently paid around €29m per year to grow sugar beet. Currently, Public Health England is pushing to reduce sugar consumption, yet the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is trying to raise production, pointed out the report.

The money saved on sugar beet subsidies could instead be used to support the increased production of foods that align with public health goals, especially horticultural products and pulses, it said. Alternatively, it could be used to create rural development funds for farm shops, community-supported agriculture, and direct marketing for agro-ecological farming.

"One of the more startling findings from this study is the blatant discord between DEFRA’s policy and Public Health England’s campaign for sugar reduction,” Graham MacGregor, professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and chairman of Action on Sugar, said.

“It’s imperative that a joined-up sugar policy with consistent strategies for the UK is in place. With a major new report this week showing that teenagers and children in the UK are among the unhealthiest in the Western world, the government must act now. Sugar not only lacks any nutritional value, but it contributes to excess calorie intake which leads to weight gain, raising the risk of type-2 diabetes, heart disease, tooth decay and some cancers.”

The report also advocates regulating the maximum amount of sugar allowed in certain products, such as children’s breakfast cereals and commercial baby foods. Labelling laws could also be changed to ensure that added sugars are displayed on the front.

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