Tortoise’s second Better Food Index, which scores the UK’s 30 biggest food companies on a range of sustainability metrics, was published this week. Take care when you click through to the rankings table because it’s topsy-turvy: the lowest-scoring company – Sofina UK – is at the top and the best scoring firm – Cranswick – is at the bottom. Nestlé and Britvic came second and third overall but even the highest-scoring companies only just reached 30 points out of a possible 100 (a point they neglected to mention in their press releases).
Companies have a love-hate relationship with such indices. The focus of this one is on reporting and transparency (the irony that a sausage-maker came top garnered a few chuckles at the launch). Pay, climate, affordability and nutrition are all covered. This year’s index leaned heavily into the health debate and the popular topic of ultra-processed foods. 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.
Indeed, the sweetest food brings the highest margins noted Tortoise this week in a deeper dive into the sugar content across the 30 companies’ portfolios. “If you sell more healthy foods, you'll make less money and you'll get fired,” saidHenry Dimbleby, author of the national food strategy. “So I think the companies are in a bind. One thing that they can do is not be actively wicked.”
Which brings us to politics. “We will change advertising rules and we will make sure that products which are harmful to our children’s health – vaping, junk food, sugary snacks – cannot be advertised to our children,” said Sir Keir Starmer as he launched Labour’s plans for the NHS. The Conservative government has delayed its junk food policies. Reports suggest Starmer has ruled out imposing a tax on unhealthy food however.
The OHA also launched its manifesto for the next general election as it looked to put pressure on politicians to make diet-related ill health a priority. The Social Market Foundation also said this week that ministers need to be less squeamish about so-called ‘nanny state’ interventions.
The foundation has been busy of late, having also just published a new report about chickens. Called ‘Fair or fowl’ and sponsored by the RSPCA the analysis estimates that there are 155 million factory-farmed animals in the UK, of which 98% are poultry. Only 2% and 12% of farm animals are respectively organic or RSPCA Assured. The figures are “based on an admittedly crude ‘factory’/‘non-factory’ distinction” the authors noted, in which ‘lower welfare’ equates to ‘factory farming’.
SMF and the RSPCA called for more data and greater transparency: “Defra should aim to produce, based on representative samples of farms, estimates of the welfare status of each farmed animal in the UK, allowing us to categorise (in the farm animal welfare committee’s terms), whether they have a ‘good life’, ‘life worth living’ or a ‘life not worth living’.”
The RSPCA has recently been acting as an intervener in a court case brought against Defra, providing expert testimony that fast-growing chickens do not have ‘a life worth living’.
The Humane League UK claimed that permitting the use of fast-growing breeds of chicken is unlawful under the welfare of farmed animals regulations 2007 (which state that animals cannot be kept for farming purposes if their genetics cause health and welfare problems). But the High Court this week dismissed the challenge. RSPCA calledthe judgement a “missed opportunity to make the single most important change for animals in 200 years”. Some companies are proactively looking at slower-growing breeds of chicken, while some in the beef sector seem intent on shortening the lives of their stock in a bid to reduce emissions.
But perhaps we need to eat more plant-based meats? Sales of meat alternatives during the much-hyped Veganuary period struggled amid the cost-of-living crisis, according to NIQ supermarket data. “[…] alternatives still cost significantly more than the standard range (despite slower inflation),” the experts said; price played a part in unit sales for chilled and frozen meat alternatives falling almost 17% and 14% respectively. A blog by FMCG gurus suggests the plant-based market needs to learn from its mistakes. Questions around the health and sustainability credentials of the products need to be addressed, for example.
And if that doesn’t work we could turn away from chickens and chickpeas to crickets. Acheta Domesticus (or house crickets) have just been deemed ‘within scope of novel foods regime and valid’ by the Food Standards Agency. It’s already taken 18 months and thousands of pounds to get this far but the insect has only passed the ‘sense-checking’ phase and should now progress on to assessment. Geoff Knott, co-founder of cricket bar producer HOP and the man who has been leading the application with the UK Edible Insects Association, expects it will be another 12 months until final approval. The crickets are one of seven species covered in the transitional agreement following Brexit, allowing them to be sold in Great Britain until the end of this year. After that they can only be sold if an application has been submitted to the FSA. “A clearer, simpler and more lightweight authorisation for novel foods is still on my Christmas 2024 wish list,” said Knott.