The UK’s largest food companies are struggling to report clearly on their environmental and social impacts, according to the second Tortoise Better Food Index.
For example, the index showed scope 3 emissions problems persist: 26 of the 30 companies assessed are reporting on scope 3 but half appear to under-report. Meat companies in particular seem to favour reporting on scopes 1 and 2 and ignore their far larger scope 3 emissions. A dozen of the companies with food waste targets do not report food waste data.
The lack of reporting, especially in areas where it matters, is what tripped up the laggards – which include Sofina UK, Muller UK&I and Pladis UK&I – explained researcher Maddy Diment during the launch. She called on companies to stop hiding in the shadows. “It’s so much better to understand [your impact] and be visible,” she explained.
Even top scorers Cranswick, Nestlé and Britvic only managed around 30 points out of a possible 100. “The low scores reflect the fact that no company in the Index performs well across all the facets of operating a sustainable business,” said Jeevan Vasagar, our planet editor at Tortoise.
Data was a key topic of conversation during the launch with the likes of Diment and Mike Barry, a sustainability advisor and former head of Marks and Spencer’s Plan A, hammering home the point that the data has to be used as a lever for change within businesses.
Barry also called for wholesalers to start publicising their environmental impact and what they are doing about it: wholesalers provide a link to SMEs who can otherwise feel cut off from efforts to shift towards more sustainable food systems, he noted.
The index also assesses companies on the affordability and nutritional quality of the food they produce. Cranswick performed strongly on these measures but some companies questioned the current approaches to determine what is healthy and what’s not. Fish finger producer Birds Eye pointed out that while 93% of its net sales are ‘non-high fat, salt and sugar’, over 80% would be classified as ultra-processed according to the NOVA classification.
Eleven companies sell ultra-processed foods that contain more calories per pound than their non ultra-processed foods. At five companies – Fletcher Bay Group, Dunbia, Hilton Food Group, Cranswick and Kraft Heinz – the number of calories per pound is more than twice as high in UPFs than in non-UPFs.
Ultra-processed foods have been linked to over-consumption and an increased risk of conditions such as cardiovascular disease. In the UK, 57% of calories are derived from ultra processed foods, Tortoise noted. However, healthy foods such as fish fingers and tinned beans, which provide essential nutrients at affordable prices, can also be classified as ultra-processed under the NOVA classification.
Tortoise said the index is aimed encouraging companies to “reveal their true impact, and to fuel a data-driven race to the top”. Standardisation (and regulation) of sustainability reporting would certainly help. “Unless all companies have the same rules, they won’t risk their market share to make these changes and our population will continue to suffer, especially our children,” said Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London.
Sir Keir Starmer this week said that a Labour government would change advertising rules to ensure junk food and sugary snacks “cannot be advertised to our children”. Reports suggest Starmer has however ruled out imposing a tax on unhealthy food. The Conservative government has delayed its junk food policies.