Covid-19 commentary: Government food packages should not contain products that carry standard-rate VAT (aka drug foods)

We were approached by a serving officer from the Ministry of Defence a couple of days ago. His job is to coordinate food supplies to the  ‘vulnerable’ across the West Midlands, part of the effort described in The Grocer article here.

He wanted information from us about about major food suppliers in the region. We gladly put him into touch with people from key suppliers, plus referred him to the somewhat dated info in Annex C of our briefing note to the GBSLEP. (January 2016)


What should these packages contain? Alas, as the Manchester Evening News reported on 30th March, the Government’s first attempts to distribute food to the vulnerable was greeted by incredulity, if not downright dismay:

It’s likely this assembly of goods reflects an understandable panic response, a cobbling together of something, anything, including grabbing freebies from confectioners’ marketing budgets and off-loads from hotel and coffee shop chains. To be fair to the Government, they are faced with a huge task. They report here that 1.5M clinically vulnerable people have been advised by the NHS to stay at home for 12 weeks.

Our conversations indicate that the Government has learned from this early mistake.

It’s useful for decision-makers  to recognise why the contents of that early package were so inappropriate. It’s because they contained too much, far too much in the way of ’empty’ calories such as sugar, and the so-called ‘drug-foods’:

    • In any Government food package, arguably there shouldn’t be products carrying standard-rate VAT or, if there are, in insignificant quantities.
      • As we said in our blogpost about the impact of the lockdown on fresh produce, customers are making wise choices about food purchases. The Government has an opportunity to build on this.
      • For those who say people in these times need something ‘indulgent’, we return to the argument in our previous blogpost about shortages, namely, that the Government needs prioritise the use of the UK’s limited food processing and packing capacity to produce nutritious food.
      • Even before Covid-19, we’d pointed out that curbing these global corporations is necessary, not only because of the individual and social costs of diet-related morbidities, also because they use up too much of the world’s increasingly scarce natural resources of land, soils, water and energy that could be used to produce nutritious food; see notes 24-27 to the ‘balance sheet’ in this blogpost in the food system transformation series #3: The economic burden.
  • The Government and Public Health bodies should not partner or be sponsored by companies which make or promote drug-food products; i.e. those products in the food system which carry standard-rate VAT.
    • This includes the makers and promoters of confectionery, most drinks (excluding milk), savoury snacks such as crisps, biscuits with icings or chocolate, etc. We recommend they also exclude cake manufacturers, too (not part of the standard-rate VAT system for historical reasons).


  One thought on “Covid-19 commentary: Government food packages should not contain products that carry standard-rate VAT (aka drug foods)

  1. It would be interesting to see if the emergency food packages have evolved to include food items which more supportive of good health. I am sure we all enjoy a biscuit or cake when it’s an additional snack rather than the only food on offer.
    Thought provoking blog and I hope that those involved in food distribution take note.

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