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BRIEFING: Grocers fall short on nutrition performance

A new UK retailer index claims to provide the most comprehensive ever assessment of grocers’ contribution to consumer health – and foodservice could be the next target. Nick Hughes reports.

There’s a new retailer benchmarking survey in town then? Indeed there is. The Access to Nutrition Initiative (ATNI) has partnered with NGO ShareAction to compare the performance of 11 major UK food and drink retailers across eight topics and 126 indicators covering areas such as product formulation, in-store promotion, pricing and placement, and labelling.

Give me the headline findings. There’s a wide disparity in performance between the retailers, a general lack of transparency and – across the board – huge room for improvement with an average score of just 3.3 out of 10. Tesco tops the league table with a score of 5.1 while Iceland and Ocado score just 0.6 and 0.5 respectively. More positively, retailers are praised for taking the issue of nutrition seriously with nine out of 11 willing to share additional information with ATNI not in the public domain.

So Tesco ranked number one. Hasn’t it already faced pressure from shareholders to do more on nutrition? Well remembered. Last year the UK’s biggest supermarket committed to increase sales of healthier food products from 58% to 65% of all sales by 2025 following a shareholder resolution filed by ShareAction. The charity’s senior campaigns and research officer Lily Roberts says investors are increasingly prioritising health within their policies and practices, and expects them “to continue robust company engagement on this theme”.

Where did Tesco score highly? It was the only retailer to provide evidence of having increased sales of healthy products in the last financial year and is among four retailers – the others being Aldi, Lidl, and Sainsbury’s – to have set targets to increase sales of healthier food products over time, including fruit and vegetables. With this in mind, last week Tesco launched a ‘better baskets’ campaign which will signpost healthier foods that are high in fibre and low in calories along with plant-based options.

Tesco also features alongside Aldi, Asda, Lidl and Morrisons in not needing to pay the soft drinks industry levy (SDIL) in the previous financial year because the added sugar content of its own-brand soft drinks fell below the level at which the levy is applied – testament to investment by those retailers in product reformulation. 

So regulation works? It seems to; action to avoid paying the SDIL was highlighted as an example of where retailers have responded “rapidly and decisively” to mandatory policies for reformulation. By contrast, the assessment found many retailers are not on track to reach voluntary government targets to reduce levels of salt, sugar and especially calories. Roberts cites the ability to “stay ahead of growing regulation” in the health space as one reason why retailers should better integrate considerations around nutrition across their business.

But hasn’t the government just committed a U-turn on a promotions ban? Well spotted. Just days after publication of the retailer index, plans to ban “buy one get one free” deals on unhealthy snacks and a 9pm watershed for junk food advertising were pushed back a year to October 2023 and January 2024 respectively. The move came amid fears among Conservative MPs that the restrictions would exacerbate the cost of living crisis (even though the government’s own consultation response notes how volume promotions encourage people to spend more than they otherwise would). Tesco and Sainsbury’s have since signalled their intention to remove volume-led promotions regardless, albeit across the 11 retailers the average score for in-store pricing, promotion and placement indicators was just 3 out of 10.

So regulation looks like a non-starter in the short-term. Are there any other lessons to be drawn from the index? Retailers who score relatively highly for governance – for example by allocating responsibility for delivering their nutrition strategy to a senior executive or CEO – also rank higher in the index as a whole. Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Aldi and Lidl occupy the top four places both overall and for governance.

Another key finding is that retailers – somewhat unhelpfully – use different definitions for what constitutes ‘healthy’. Not all the retailers use the government-endorsed Food Standards Agency nutrient profiling model to guide policies in areas like reformulation and marketing, with some using their own standards or a combination of models. ATNI warns that this inconsistency can lead to confusion among customers regarding the healthiness of products, a point worth bearing in mind amid the current proliferation of eco-labelling schemes.

So food retailers need to do better on health. Are there any implications for foodservice businesses? Although the index focuses on retailers specifically, foodservice businesses have been put on notice that they will be next under the microscope. ShareAction tells Footprint that it is planning to turn its attention to the out-of-home sector towards the end of this year, albeit the exact nature of the work has yet to be fleshed out, meaning those businesses lagging behind on nutrition will not be able to avoid scrutiny for too much longer.