Footprint Forum: Preparing for change on ethical landscape

Consumers who leave their ethics at home when eating out, poor guidance from government, pressure on margins and a confusing array of accreditation schemes and labels have made the ethical landscape a difficult one to navigate for the foodservice sector. Foodservice Footprint’s latest Forum looked at the lie of the land and how companies could prepare for the journey ahead.

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In 2008, the Food Ethics Council ran a special edition ‘The eating out guide’. It came at a time when the catering sector, more than at any other time in its history perhaps, was under close scrutiny from TV programmes such as Fast Food Nation, Supersize Me! And Jamie’s School Dinners. The sector was being hauled from the food industry’s shadows into the spotlight. Consumers were spending almost as much on eating out, as they were on eating in, and yet foodservice was seen to be dragging its feet on social and environmental issues.

 

In part, it wasn’t their fault. There was no regulatory push for companies to flag the attributes of the products available – whether in terms of sourcing, provenance or nutritional value. Neither was there much marketing pull, with consumers tending to ‘leave their ethics behind’ when they went out to eat, according to the research at the time. But were things changing? In her contribution to FEC’s guide, Emma Roe, a researcher at Southampton University, suggested they were.

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“Historically, the catering industry has had little interest in marketing the implicit quality attributes of the food they serve. However, recently there has been a noticeable trend towards ‘local’, seasonal food on the menu, within catering (especially high-end restaurants) and contract catering (school meals being the most dynamic sector),” she said.

 

What Roe’s research had also identified was the use of specific logos on menus that indicated some ethical status was “increasingly evident in a range of eating establishments, perhaps most notably in the branded chain restaurants, pubs and, cafes”. She singled out the Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance logos as two that were enjoying a growing presence in high-street and in-house branded catering outlets.

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Two years on and those big labels continue to grow; eight out of every 10 people recognises the Fairtrade logo, according to new research by consumer group, Which?. Meanwhile, the Rainforest Alliance (as reported in FF10), will be buoyed by its presence on packs of Tetley. The tea blender is just the latest in an ever-lengthening line of brands that is seeking to improve its ethical credentials. The trouble is, the line of ethical labels and schemes available to choose from has also lengthened.

 

An investigation by The Daily Telegraph found there are up to 80 different ethical and food assurance schemes, and over a dozen of them are separate organic schemes. This can make life confusing for shoppers, but for the foodservice industry it could be stalling progress. If people are already leaving their ethical values behind when they go out to eat, do they really want a menu peppered with a range of logos?

 

Currently, the evidence we have shows that information on menus is important, not least because people want to know why they are paying a premium for certain ethical values (like organic or locally-sourced). Many consumers also want to be reassured that the companies are acting responsibly – a steak from a local farm, for instance, will show an interest in provenance and the local economy. Of course, false claims help no one.

 

In September last year, Hampshire County Council investigated 50 dishes from 30 different pubs, restaurants and butchers. They found one in four were sold with an incorrect origin claim. In one, Hampshire lamb, was actually from New Zealand. As Mintel warns in its 2010 report – ‘Impact of the recession on eating out habits’ – this can damage the sector as a whole. For those once removed from consumer-facing activity, such as the contract caterers, the warning is the same.

 

So where does this leave the foodservice sector of 2011? The ethical landscape is cluttered and difficult to navigate, leaving some disillusioned and many, no doubt, confused. Others are trying, it seems, to fool customers with their marketing of ethical values. There is undoubtedly a lack of direction. So, Foodservice Footprint, in association with BaxterStorey, recently brought together some of the big ethical certification schemes, key industry players and leading ethical food experts to see where we go from here. In a lively debate, coordinated by leading Radio 4 presenter, Edward Stourton, there was plenty for the industry to chew over.

 

Panel: Wolfgang Weinmann (WW) – Cafedirect, head of strategic development, Ian Bretman (IB) – Fairtrade, director of strategy and innovation, Toby Middleton (TMi) – Marine Stewardship Council, UK & Ireland country manager, Leigh Grant (LG) – Freedom Food, chief executive, David Clarke (DC) – Red Tractor Assurance, chief executive, Bill Vorley (BV) – International Institute for Environment and Development, principal researcher, Anil Alim (AA) – BaxterStorey, procurement & supply chain director, Tom MacMillan (TM) – Food Ethics Council, executive director, Steve Pugh (SP) – Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Caroline Fry (CF) – CH&Co, board director, Karin Kreider (KK) – ISEAL Alliance, scaling up director

 

Discussion:

A lot has happened in the past 20 years when it comes to ethical sourcing, labelling and certification – it’s a multi-billion pound sector. So, what’s the current lie of the land for the foodservice sector?

 

Ian Bretman: I can recall having conversations 20 years ago with major retailers about our label and they said ‘don’t be stupid – the market for that [ethical labels] is being catered for in church halls’. It is very, very different nowadays.

 

Toby Middleton: Our label, MSC, is more mature in retail than foodservice. In foodservice it is more fragmented and the brands are not often consumer-facing, so it’s been more difficult to gather momentum. The consumer is the same, it’s just the way [he or she] digests information and makes choices is different. But I expect the trend [for MSC] to grow in foodservice because consumers are thinking more dynamically about how they are choosing products.

 

Wolfgang Weinmann: We have come a long way and we are in a much different, much better place now – and a lot of progress has been made in terms of ethical production. You have to start at the production level, but there needs to be investment across the supply chain. Labels have created a level playing field, but we do have a proliferation of labels and standards ranging from third party certification schemes to those that are [designed by companies themselves].

 

Is the fact there are lots of labels creating confusion?

 

Caroline Fry: I think the danger is that if we continue to increase [the number of labels and schemes] then interest in ethical issues could fall. It’s tough. We haven’t ever gained or lost a job based on our sustainability – it often comes down to price. You need a balanced view for commercial and environmental sense.

 

In retail, the labels are designed to help customers choose which products to buy. But in catering, if it won’t win you contracts, then is there any need to consider a certification scheme?

 

CF: There were a couple of people in the company who mattered that believed in it. Our customers have become more interested in it. A lot of our clients also expect it; it might not win or lose [contracts] but they expect it. When it gets down to the shortlist it’ll be about price – sustainability will have been washed out by then because it’s expected.

 

Leigh Grant: The ethical market has grown and grown and this has created a marketing opportunity. However, Freedom Food isn’t a marketing ploy – we are looking to make a marked improvement. When you speak to consumers, over 50 per cent say they have a right to know the provenance of their food. In fact, over 30 per cent say they would boycott a restaurant if they didn’t know. The industry needs to react to this. Around two thirds of all eggs used in restaurants, pubs and cafes, whether whole, or in liquid form in products such as quiches and cakes, are still sourced from hens kept in battery cages. This compares to less than half of whole eggs produced for boxes sold in supermarkets that come from caged hens. We also have our 'Simply Ask 'campaign that encourages people to think about the welfare credentials of the food they order when they eat out.

 

David Clarke: It’s important that a label has something underpinning it. The truth is that there are a lot of labels across the sector, many are single issues and say they are very important. Our [Red Tractor] label is a composite label.

 

There are indeed a lot of single issue labels, arguably issues that resonate with consumers. But how do foodservice companies go about choosing what’s best for them?

 

IB: Which one should you choose? Well, I think you should make an informed choice. There are three or four schemes that work with coffee farmers, but there is collaboration between us. The market element [that provides] is a good thing.

 

WW: A brand will use a label that matches the brand identity. In our case, we wanted to make an impact in relation to smallholders [who grow coffee] so Fairtrade was the one for us. Of course, these schemes cost money for the producers, so it’s nonsensical for them to sign up to lots of different ones.

 

Tom MacMillan: Looking at all the labels, the question many might have is whether you could pull those together and wrap them into an omni-label. I think there’s a strong appetite [to go in that direction] but when you aggregate these things you lose the detail.

 

Bill Vorley: The real risk in all this for foodservice companies is ‘initiative fatigue’. How much can the consumer sub-contract trust to the brand, or company, rather than individual labels? For instance, could the route be a ‘pure and honest’ label? (see boxout)

 

WW: I think the labels are a good starting point for producing ethical or sustainable products, and it was unthinkable 20 years ago that we would be where we are today on awareness, but labels don’t provide all the answers. There needs to be investment through the supply chain.

 

TM: Yes, labelling is only ever going to be the tip of the iceberg. The Government has a crucial role to play too. Businesses want well thought through legislation.

 

Legislation can often be a driver for change – could it be used effectively alongside labels?

 

Steve Pugh: The role of legislation is a two-edged sword. It increases trust but sometimes our opaqueness means it is not always easy to follow. We might not need to introduce legislation that quickly, but of course there could be pressure from Europe. We’re stepping back.

 

TM: I’m not saying the role of government is to introduce more labels. Labels are a very good means of moving forward the leading green businesses. Where labelling doesn’t help so much is in terms of the laggards. To eliminate the worst practice we need better regulation and fiscal measures. One of the questions businesses ask themselves is whether there is a commercial opportunity here too. For some, there is, but for many in the foodservice sector, there’s perhaps not so great an opportunity. For foodservice, the drivers can hinge on persuasion from institutional customers, and the state is a big, big customer.

 

SP: We’ve just published some government buying standards and we’d like the industry to use those.

 

Karin Kreider: We are really seeing companies not just using the standards for a marketing win, but because it is a vehicle to better relationships with their suppliers.

 

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So, where do we go from here?

 

Anil Alim: I think a lot of the accreditation schemes have been designed around retail – and retail was blazing the trail a few years ago. What would help us is if the schemes understood more about the challenges for us in foodservice. Caterers work very differently to retailers; we take the products from the farm but we combine them to make meals. The bureaucracy can make it harder for us to follow [some schemes].

 

CF: Perhaps [the schemes] could also do a better job at marketing their brands. Everyone might know Fairtrade, but some still don’t understand it. About 90 per cent of our customers didn’t understand Red Tractor. People also only take, on average, 17 minutes for lunch so they won’t read labels, where the food comes from, nutritional information and so on.

 

TM: I think we might see less product-specific [initiatives] and more about an overall approach – like the Kitemark approach.

 

BV: It’s also about how much of [that trust element] consumers can sub-contract to the brand, rather than individual labels.

 

Final word...

 

For too long foodservice, especially those companies that are not consumer-facing, have been able to hide behind their clients – a ploy that has arguably left them lagging behind the grocery sector in the ethical stakes. Agreed, the landscape is a confusing one, with many accreditation schemes and labels – some not-for-profit, some designed for profit – some with very different goals, and some with very similar ones. Consolidation in the ethical schemes would help, as would a clearer direction from government.

 

How legislation can play a part in all this created some intriguing exchanges; Defra seemed content to stand on the sidelines for the moment though. But, as FEC’s Tom Macmillan suggests, the policy makers sometimes need reassuring that people, at times, want regulation to make life easier. Does the foodservice industry want a steer from government in the form of legislation? Or, can government encourage progress and offer more direction through its own, vast, tendering process?

 

The fact that many tenders came down to price was unsurprising – especially in the current climate. Sustainability was seen as ‘expected’, but was this just a token tick in the box? Should the final stages of tendering come down to who offers the best balance between commercial and environmental reasoning? Again, there was confusion as to who should take the lead on this.

 

What is clear, is that there will be mounting pressure on companies and brands to have answers to the inevitable questions about how fair and sustainable their supply source is and why they have chosen specific certifications. That the choice is too confusing will not be an excuse for inaction. Consumers might not want a menu full of labels – indeed, labels alone will not change behaviour – but they are likely to rely on restaurants, caterers and fast food outlets to act responsibly. A label and third party accreditation can reassure consumers of that, but it can’t be the final destination.

 

This sector has immense buying power, from the fast food chains to the institutions and firms that use contract caterers, and that provides it with considerable leverage to support and develop ethical products and services. In the past, many have chosen, as Dr Roe pointed out in her report in 2008, not to wield that power. In the future, they may not have the choice. The question is whether they continue to wait in the shadows for regulation or take the spotlight and make change happen.

 

Food for Thought:

 

The Dutch supermarket chain, Albert Heijn, created this label as an umbrella brand including organic, fair trade, sustainably caught fish and free range meat. Albert Heijn opted for a single brand to represent those products made with particular care and devotion to people, animal welfare, nature and/or the environment to make it easier for consumers to choose responsibly. Proof that ‘pure & honest’ has made it easier to shop responsibly is in the pudding: 75 per cent of customers who buy free range meat had previously purchased Albert Heijn's regular meat offering and switched to this rapidly-growing, more animal-friendly alternative. Could this kind of umbrella scheme, which places the consumer’s trust in the brand, reduce confusion and encourage better practice in the foodservice sector too? 

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