Foodservice Footprint plate2 Can footprinting of menus lead to emissions reductions? Out of Home News Analysis  news-email most-read email-news

Can footprinting of menus lead to emissions reductions?

Appetite to create ‘low carbon’ dishes is strong, but don’t expect people to pay more for them. David Burrows reports. 

Big step. Catering firm Sodexo is adding carbon footprints to the menus at 300 of its 700 sites in the UK and Ireland. This represents a “phased, structured approach” to ensure that it works and adds value, a spokesperson told Footprint. “Also, for products that we don’t produce, the carbon information isn’t available so we will be supporting our partners in our supply chain on this journey,” he added. 

Main meal. The focus first is on main dishes given that they have the highest impact. Starters and desserts can come with hefty footprints too, but the impacts from these can fall as a consequence of the work going into the main meals.

With a side of relish. The information is being provided in part to offer diners more information about the meal choices they make, but also – and more critically – to drive innovation behind the scenes to produce ever-lower carbon dishes. It is a challenge the chefs “relish”, says Sodexo food director Charles Abraham.

How low? The target is for 70% of Sodexo’s main dishes to be “low carbon” by 2030. There is however currently no universally recognised definition for a low carbon meal.

0.9. Research conducted by WWF for the caterer has now defined a low carbon meal as one producing 0.9 kgCO2e or less. This is higher than the ‘low carbon’ band that Wahaca is using (less than 0.549kg CO2e), but is in line with what Sodexo has committed to achieve through its SBTi-validated net-zero targets.

0.5. By 2050 this really needs to be 0.5kgCO2e per meal globally to have any chance of keeping temperature rises within 1.5C. But 0.9kgCO2e represents an “important milestone” on this journey, the spokesperson adds. Sodexo’s red bean stew & sweet potato is already there at 0.36kgCO2e. The chicken with mustard and miso cream ducks under the current limit at 0.8kgCO2e.

Big balls. The handcrafted meatballs, wholewheat pasta, parmesan and rocket weighs in at 5.7kgCO2e. Ouch! “Beyond 2030, we will continue to reduce the impact of our meals through recipe design as well as supply chain emission reduction,” says the spokesperson. Removing the meat would be a quick fix. Sourcing regenerative meat is the longer-term approach – and one which would rely heavily on sequestering a lot of carbon in the soils. Such approaches are on shaky ground currently.

Unfashionable. “It’s a trending term,” said Sodexo director of sustainability Claire Atkins Morris at a recent Footprint forum on regenerative agriculture. “We feel it’s not fair on the farming community or our customers to have something in place when it’s not been fully defined.”

Pizza the action. Others are jumping in, regardless. Ask Italian has switched to regenerative wheat (from supplier and certifier Wildfarmed) to make the flour that goes into its pizza bases. The result? The carbon intensity of the dough has been sliced in half. “We’re doing another [life cycle assessment] this year that will include more soil samples and update this figure,” says a spokespersonfor Foodsteps, the tech company providing the footprints.

Rising to the challenge. Ask owner Azzurri, which also owns the Zizzi and Coco di Mama chains, has also gone for a ‘low carbon’ target in its net-zero planning. By 2030, 65% of its brands’ menus will consist of low or very low carbon options, according to the net-zero roadmap in the company’s sustainable dining report published last month. Zizzi’s use of Wildfarmed flour for a campanelle lentil ragu means the dish managed a ‘very low carbon’ rating, according to Foodsteps’ scheme.

Carbon counters. Foodsteps’ scale, which is also being used by Compass, is based on ‘carbon intensity’, which reflects the carbon footprint per kilogram of each food item or product, so kgCO2e per kilo of food. This is different from Sodexo’s per meal approach. For Foodsteps, ‘very low carbon’ (or A-rating) is attributed to recipes that are below 1.81 kgCO2e/kg. “These recipes align to the planetary boundaries required to feed the planet sustainably by 2050.” 

D-today. The ratings slide from A to E. The current average carbon intensity of our diets is 4.63kg CO2e/kg, according to Foodsteps, which is a D-rated value. So, we need a 61% decrease to stay within the 2050 planetary boundaries.

Diet tomorrow. According to WWF, global food systems account for around 30% of all greenhouse gases emitted around the world. Bringing the current UK diet down to 3.12kg CO2e per person per day would reportedly deliver over half of the food emissions reductions needed by 2030.

There is a “huge opportunity” for food businesses like Sodexo to help address this challenge by enabling people to make healthier, sustainable food choices, said Lisa Huggins, foodservice sustainable diets manager at WWF-UK.

Doing the math. Sodexo admits the numbers are not yet perfect, but accuracy will improve. The caterer will also continue to “refine and improve” its approach through its WWF Finer Diner initiative in schools, Greener by Default trials in corporate dining, eco-labelling in Europe and in the US with Eaternity, Klimate and Eco Score.

Expectant eaters. Consumer adoption is essential to drive a reduction in the impact of food consumption, so labels might help. Sodexo’s new survey of 2,278 UK adults showed 60% do not recall ever having seen carbon labelling on food products or menus, but 20% seek out places with carbon labels. Some 36% expect restaurants and food-to-go outlets to offer carbon information, while 28% said they’d pay a premium for low and very low carbon options.

Do gooders. What people say in surveys and what they do in practice hardly ever aligns. But that doesn’t mean all these footprinting exercises won’t do some good.


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