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A weighty resignation - the UK government’s food tsar resigns over obesity

Sugary drinks in a London supermarket, which could be contributing to the UK's obesity problems
Sugary drinks in a London supermarket, which could be contributing to the UK's obesity problems Copyright ASSOCIATED PRESS
Copyright ASSOCIATED PRESS
By Saskia O'Donoghue
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Henry Dimbleby, the UK's food tsar, has quit over what he calls a 'lack of government action' over obesity in one of the worst affected countries in Europe.

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The British government's food tsar has resigned, saying he made the decision to quit in order to freely criticise the government and their, quote, "insane" inaction against obesity.

Henry Dimbleby, part of the Dimbleby broadcasting dynasty and co-founder of the UK high end fast food chain Leon, attacked ministers in the Conservative government, saying they were refusing to impose restrictions on the junk food industry and had an obsession with "ultra-free-market ideology". He claims that this is partly to blame for two-thirds of adults in England being either overweight or obese.

After announcing his resignation on Sunday (19 March), Dimbleby told The Sunday Times that the government is concerned that tackling obesity could be seen to be part of a ‘nanny state’, making unwelcome food choices for the average citizen. He said, in actual fact, that this wasn’t the issue but, “there is concern that we need to be celebrating the great British diets of fish and chips and curry and beer and that junk food is somehow patriotic”.

Sugar and spice on the rack

Dimblebly, 53, had spent five years in his post at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). During his time there, he conducted an independent review of the UK’s food system, recommending an expansion to free school meals, a long-campaigned for salt and sugar tax, and an introduction of General Practitioner (GP) prescriptions for fruit and vegetables.

Many of those proposals were not acted on and plans to ban promotion of buy-one-get-one-free and similar deals have been put off until October this year, in order to help people manage as the UK struggles through the cost-of-living crisis.

Also due to come into force this year was a ban on pre-9pm junk food adverts - but this has been postponed indefinitely too.

Sam Robinson Photography LTD
Henry DimblebySam Robinson Photography LTD

Dimbleby explained how he feels he can now speak openly now he is no longer working for DEFRA - and he hasn’t been pulling any punches, saying "This government is going backwards… They're just not tackling it [obesity]."

He warned that ignoring the problem could spell disaster for the National Health Service (NHS), explaining, "DEFRA will say, 'Oh, we can't do this because it'll hurt the food businesses'. Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Social Care will be left to clear up the mess that's caused by this".

Fight against the flab

Obesity currently costs the struggling NHS £6bn (approximately €6.8 billion) every year and that figure is set to rise to over £9.7bn (about €11.075 billion) annually by 2050, according to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government's own estimates.

Dimbleby said the Conservative party - who have had three separate leaders since September 2022 - could do worse than following their predecessor Winston Churchill's mantra that a country's greatest asset is its healthy citizens. The former food tsar also pointed to remarks made in November last year by the previous Bank of England chief executive. Andy Haldane said that the worsening health of the British people is a huge part of why economic growth in the country is being held back for the first time since the Industrial Revolution, which ended in around 1840.

In response to Dimbleby’s criticism, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said, "We take tackling obesity seriously and we will continue to work closely with industry to make it easier for people to make healthier choices".

Supermarket swipe

It’s not the first time Dimbleby has criticised the food industry and the government’s response. Earlier this month while still at DEFRA, he blamed Britain’s, “weird supermarket culture” for recent food shortages across the country, calling it a “market failure”.

Consumers were unable to access various fruits and vegetables for several weeks, with rationing and limits put in place at some outlets. Experts criticised government ministers for meeting large food chains rather than suppliers, who continue to struggle with rising costs while locked into contracts with supermarkets.

At the time, Henry Dimbleby said mainland Europe was not facing similar problems because the UK has its own set of cultural issues, saying, “There’s just this weird supermarket culture. A weird competitive dynamic that’s emerged in the UK, and nowhere else in the world has it, and I don’t know why that is”.

Last year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) ranked the UK fourth for having the most overweight and obese adults in Europe. Across the continent, obesity affects 59% of adults, with WHO saying it’s reached "epidemic proportions" in Europe, causing over 1.2 million deaths every year.

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