Non-harmonised taxes on high sugar, salt and fat products such as soft drinks, sweet and salty foodstuffs do induce a reduction of the consumption of the taxed products, but the exact impact on the competitiveness of the European agri-food sector needs to be further assessed, according to a new study.

This is the conclusion of a study (‘Food taxes and their impact on competitiveness in the agri-food sector’) commissioned by the Directorate General for Enterprise and Industry of the European Commission to the ECSIP consortium led by Ecorys Netherlands.

The study concludes that food taxes in general achieve a reduction in the consumption of the taxed products and as a result, consumers may instead purchase similar non-taxed or less heavily taxed items. It also shows that consumers may simply buy cheaper brands of the taxed products, thus potentially not lowering their consumption of the ingredient the tax aims to target (i.e. salt, sugar or fat). Equally, consumers may be able to buy other products with similar levels of sugar, salt or fat to those that are taxed.

Impact on competitiveness

The study was able to confirm a number of impacts of food taxes on the agri-food sector competitiveness. Food taxes lead to an increase in administrative burden, notably if the tax is levied on ingredients or if the rules defining which products are liable under the tax are highly differentiated and complicated. The exact impact on profitability, employment and investment needs to be further explored, but there are some indications that these may be negatively affected. No definitive conclusions are possible due to the limited number of available cases and the short time span between the introduction of taxes and the study.

The competitiveness of individual firms, especially of SMEs, within a Member State can be more directly affected by food taxes. When consumers switch to cheaper brands, it reduces the competiveness of premium brand producers. Likewise, substitution from taxed products to non-taxed products reduces the competitiveness of producers of the taxed products compared to producers of the non-taxed products. The degree to which individual competitiveness is affected is highly influenced by the product category that is taxed (as brand loyalty may be strong enough to prevent consumer switching) and by whether many similar products escape tax (which makes substitution to non-taxed products easier).

Impact on cross border trade

A common argument against food taxes is that they raise the price of goods relative to the prices of the same goods in neighbouring countries where no such tax exists and thereby promote cross-border shopping. However, the study found that increases in cross border shopping were rather limited and that other factors, in particular other taxes on food/drinks, are more important drivers for the cross-border shopping effect.

Food taxes and the consequences arising from their introduction represent a highly complex and debated topic. While the study made some initial conclusions, it also found that further research is needed in order to assess more extensively the impact of these measures on the competitiveness of the agri-food sector.