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The hotly-contested issue of taxes on food products raised its head on both sides of the Atlantic last week. The news comes as a sign that, despite scepticism in some circles that such levies do not work, they remain seen as a potential solution to the problem of obesity.
Doctors in Ontario, Canada's most populous province, called for taxes on "junk food" to be increased, for the marketing of "fatty and sugary foods" to children to be restricted and for warning labels to be placed on high-calorie products.
"The time for gentle admonitions has come and gone. We need to fight this problem with proven tools like tax incentives and graphic warnings. There is an enormous body of evidence that these measures work," Dr. Doug Weir, president of the Ontario Medical Association, insisted.
Canada's food industry, unsurprisingly, begged to differ. "Let's be very clear - food is not tobacco. Tobacco has no place in a healthy, balanced lifestyle. A tax on food and beverages is nothing but a tax grab," the Food and Consumer Products of Canada industry association said. "Last October, Denmark introduced a tax on fat. They scrapped it because it simply was not working. Taxing food and beverages will not ensure Canadians are healthier, nor will it lower the rate of obesity in this country. Consumer education and more product choice will lead to real results."
In Ireland, it was reported last week the country's government is considering whether to introduce a tax on unhealthy food. The Irish food sector reacted swiftly but taking a slightly different tack to their Canadian counterparts.
Paul Kelly, director of Food and Drink Industry Ireland, argued higher levies on certain foods would have "no health benefits" but also claimed increased taxes would "damage" the "competitiveness" of the country's food manufacturers. "Ireland already imposes high taxes on many foods. An additional tax on sugar or soft drinks, for example, would amount to a double taxation and cause unwelcome uncertainty throughout the food chain," he said.
Denmark's U-turn on its tax on saturated fat backed the food industry's argument that such levies do not work. Health campaigners had also criticised the Danish tax - but only because, they argued, it was not high enough.
However, the news from Canada and Ireland follows recent noises from the Israeli government that it was looking into imposing a tax on certain food. The issue is still being seen as possible way to tackle obesity and to try and battle against what many see as a severe public health issue on the horizon.
The industry may argue obesity is a complex issue that needs all stakeholders to co-operate. It may argue it is working hard to reformulate its products (although it concedes more needs to be done). But words are not enough: the food sector needs to stay on the front foot and demonstrate its work on new recipes and product development. It also, perhaps, needs to be more vocal on how it is trying to improve public health, not just to stave off the threat of taxation or regulation but also to win over consumers.
There has, at a number of industry events just-food has attended in recent weeks, been much talk of the industry losing consumer trust on issues including health. "My fear is we’ve got one of the best industries but, if you listen to the dialogue that goes out into the public domain, it doesn’t seem that way. We seem to be the devil incarnate, trying to poison people, make them obese or whatever else," former Kellogg executive Timothy Mobsby told FoodDrinkEurope's industry conference in Brussels two weeks ago.
Later this week, just-food's latest management briefing will focus on the issue of nutrient taxes, examining the advantages and disadvantages of this area of policy, including analysis of the current debates in Ireland, Canada, Denmark and the UK, while also looking at the influence of the World Health Organization, with perspectives from notable academics in the field and industry. Plenty, then, to chew over.
Until next time...