Brexit is weighing heavy on the industry – but is that why the ambitious project is keeping quiet on its first year’s progress?
Brexit is all-consuming. So say 32 food and drink trade associations which claimed last week their members have neither “the physical resources nor organisational bandwidth” to deal with policy matters unrelated to Brexit.
They’ve got a point. The industry has not been backward in warning that a no-deal scenario will be catastrophic to supply chains designed to function under harmonised rules and frictionless trade.
Yet a more cynical take on the letter is that Brexit presents a convenient way to kick the can down the road on some difficult policy issues. If this is the case (and there’s no suggestion it’s the foremost factor) it would surely be a mistake in the long run both in terms of brand reputation and the ability to comply with future government directives.
Take health, where the foodservice sector has consistently come under pressure to take more meaningful action to improve diets. Last year, Public Health England revealed that both first-year sugar reduction and first-stage salt reduction had fallen well short of targets.
With the next tranche of salt targets due any time now and category-level calorie reduction targets also due to be published this year, businesses hitting the brakes due to Brexit may find they don’t have the institutional horsepower to catch up again once health reclaims its position towards the top of the policy agenda.
But what of the high-street health alliance, you may ask?
For those needing a reminder, a year ago last month 10 of the UK’s best-known high-street food brands, including Costa, McDonald’s, Greggs and Wetherspoon, joined forces to tackle unhealthy diets. The group launched a code of practice on health and wellness which included a number of commitments ranging from offering healthier children’s products to providing clear nutritional information.
Despite questions over the ambiguity of certain commitments, it was welcomed by this very publication as the kind of alliance the sector needs to present a united front in the war against obesity, and to pull straggling companies up by their coattails.
A year on, however, and questions about what the alliance has actually achieved have gone unanswered. Last year, an alliance spokesperson told Footprint that members of the alliance would be meeting regularly to provide updates on their progress against the commitments set out in the code, adding that progress would be monitored throughout the year and the commitments would be reviewed as appropriate.
Yet one year on, the spokesperson can’t say how many times the group of companies has met, nor give a date for when an update on progress will be available. Questions on whether any new commitments have been made in light of recent developments in government health policy and whether any new members have joined the alliance also go unanswered.
The group also committed to providing the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) with information on progress towards the commitments. But questions to the BNF about whether information has been forthcoming do not elicit a response.
This lack of transparency is particularly frustrating since there is clearly good progress being made within parts of the out-of-home sector. Greggs’ launch of a vegan sausage roll to mark Veganuary was a pioneering, not to mention surprising, example of a business marrying commercial savvy with corporate responsibility. This week Greggs reported that publicity surrounding the launch helped drive a 14.1% increase in total sales for the seven weeks to 16 February.
In January, Caterlink, Olive Catering, Vertas and Compass Group UK & Ireland, along with the University of West London, became the latest foodservice operators to sign up to the Food Foundation’s Peas Please initiative, bringing the number of catering firms pledging to serve and promote more veg to 14.
Yet on a code of practice with the lofty, and commendable, ambition to support the whole out-of-home sector to change its attitude to food and beverage development, there is silence.
Perhaps brands are keeping their powder dry for a big reveal when the uncertainty surrounding Brexit gives way to clarity? In the meantime, the sector’s critics will be more than happy to reach their own conclusions.