Cabinet should choose health over tax red tape, experts say

Seasonal fruit and veg in eco-friendly reusable bags. Photo:
Seasonal fruit and veg in eco-friendly reusable bags. Photo:

Experts have criticised a report advising against the scrapping of value added tax (btw) on fruit and veg, saying fear of red tape should not override health benefits.

The report by economic research bureau SEO had suggested the measure would lead to a bureaucratic maze, citing problems over the definition of fruit and veg, cost and a limited effect on people’s health.

The SEO recommended alternative methods to encourage healthier eating, such as the introduction of a sugar tax, limits to the availability of unhealthy food (such as vending machines with sweets in schools) and advertising controls.

However, experts are now questioning the SEO’s findings, saying it is possible to classify fruit and veg and that health is more important than bureaucratic obstacles.

‘Half of the Dutch population is too heavy or obese. Lower prices work so I suggest we get on with slashing btw,’ Ton Coenen chief of umbrella health board organisation GGD GHOR told broadcaster NOS.

The conclusions of the SEO report are ‘surprising’, Coenen said, seeing that the World Health Organisation is recommending the move and that countries such as Spain, Britain and Slovakia have slashed tax on fruit and veg without a problem.

Research by his own organisation has also shown that halving prices for fruit and veg had a ‘much bigger effect’ on people’s willingness to buy than any awareness campaign, Coenen said.

However, the SEO researchers found that no vat on fruit and veg would only increase consumption by 4% and would mostly benefit people who are buying the products anyway. ‘But every little bit helps,’ Coenen said.

It is a vegetable?

Quibbles over which products constitute fruit and veg are also not insurmountable, tax expert Fons Overwater told the broadcaster.

SEO researchers said they were worried that even a clear distinction between, for example, fresh fruit and canned fruit, could lead to court cases brought by manufacturers who think their products should be exempt.

But, Overwater said, ‘if you were to abolish every law which can be questioned because of a definition, you would be left with no tax laws at all.’

It is up to junior health and tax ministers Maarten van Ooijen and Marnix van Rij to make the decision, Overwater said. ‘I hope they won’t be wrong-footed by the report,’ he said.

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