Is transparency the loser in data climb down? 

The decision to make reporting of key health metrics voluntary risks wasting an opportunity to lift the lid on food business activities. Nick Hughes reports.

A sense of déjà vu is becoming a common experience for those who closely follow food policy. Following the delay to a ban on unhealthy food promotions and just weeks after the canning of plans for mandatory food waste reporting the government has got cold feet over plans to force food businesses to share data on key health metrics.

Footprint revealed last week that the plans initially set out last year have become the latest victim of ministers’ insistence that new policies must not add cost to businesses.

On announcing the food data transparency partnership (FDTP) in last June’s food strategy whitepaper, the government said the partnership was “a unique opportunity to […..] drive a real transformation in health, animal welfare and environmental outcomes through our food”, adding that it would “champion consumer interests, providing people with the information they need to make more sustainable, ethical, and healthier food choices, and incentivise industry to produce healthier and more ethical and sustainable food”.

The initial proposal was that reporting of data would be mandatory for large businesses across the breadth of the food sector; but speaking at a Westminster Food and Nutrition forum last week, Sean Povey, deputy director, diet, obesity and healthy behaviours at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), revealed that data sharing would now be on a voluntary basis only. “Our ministers were really clear that in the context of the current cost of living crisis and continued pressure on businesses and consumers with rising food prices, they didn’t want to do anything that would add to the burden on businesses,” he said.

The U-turn was greeted with disappointment by other speakers, including Rebecca Tobi, senior business and investor engagement manager at The Food Foundation. “Unless there's adequate enforcement in place for a voluntary system there's a danger that we'll have improved systems for reporting, but we won't have companies actually doing the reporting,” Tobi said.

In light of the latest government reversal on mandatory measures, what next for the FDTP and can it really deliver the transformation in health and environmental outcomes the government originally claimed?

Dimbleby priority

Consistent and transparent reporting of food data was a key recommendation made by Henry Dimbleby in part two of his national food strategy, published in 2021. Dimbleby wanted to see a statutory duty for all food companies with more than 250 employees – including retailers, restaurant and quick service companies, contract caterers, wholesalers, manufacturers and online ordering platforms – to publish an annual report on metrics including sales of food and drink high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS); sales of protein by type and origin; sales of vegetables and fruit; and food waste.

The result is the FDTP, a programme of work jointly owned by DHSC, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Food Standards Agency (FSA). It consists of four programme groups: a health working group led by DHSC; an eco working group led by Defra; a data and technical working group led by the FSA; and a cross-cutting design partnership group focused on operational delivery of the policies.

Healthy incentive

One of the problems the partnership is trying to solve is the current inconsistency in reporting of key health and environmental metrics which sees different businesses measure different things in different ways and share the data selectively (or not at all). “Our theory is that more transparent data, consistently reported will help create an incentive for the food system to increase the healthiness of their sales,” said Tovey.

The health working group met for the first time in July and will meet again later this month. Its first task will be to agree the set of standardised metrics to be reported on a voluntary basis. The group is made up of 15 industry representatives (DHSC did not respond to a request to share the names of members while Defra said that details of the eco working group would be published online shortly), although Tovey was keen to stress that DHSC is working closely with the NGO and investor community to feed into the process with an initial workshop planned for October. “One of our key ambitions is that we streamline the data reporting requirements and we can only do that if NGOs and investors think that the proposed metrics that come from the health working group are robust and that they to stand up to scrutiny,” he said.

This alludes to the fact that a number of NGOs already have their own voluntary reporting mechanisms and benchmarking programmes covering key health and sustainability indicators. WWF, for example, has persuaded some of the UK’s largest supermarkets including Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose to share data on key indicators such as the percentage of protein sales from animal and plant-based sources as part of a commitment to halve the environmental impact of UK shopping baskets by 2030.

The Food Foundation, through its Plating up Progress programme, benchmarks the public disclosures of large UK food businesses spanning retail and foodservice against a set of health and sustainability indicators, while investment NGO Share Action asks businesses as a bare minimum to disclose their current proportion of healthier sales and then build on that by committing to increase the proportion of sales made up of healthier food and drink products.

Each of these organisations has consistently called for mandatory reporting, as has a coalition of investors including Rathbone Greenbank Investments and LGIM, which last year urged the UK government to commit to mandatory health and sustainability standards for food companies. “Investors are increasingly aware of the material financial risks that are facing companies and the wider economy [….] if we fail to transition our food system to one which is healthy, sustainable and affordable,” Sophie Lawrence, stewardship and engagement lead at Rathbone Greenbank Investments, told the Westminster Forum. “We need to be able to understand how these risks are impacting the companies that we invest in and ultimately, to do that effectively, we need access to good quality and comparable data.”

Lawrence said the coalition was disappointed to see the rollback on mandatory data, although she added that “consistent voluntary reporting [is] still as an important stepping stone towards mandatory reporting”.

Data gaps

Others were less sanguine. Hattie Burt, senior policy and international projects officer at World Action on Salt, Sugar and Health, pointed to the failure of the government’s sugar reduction programme to achieve its targets amid large gaps in the data as an example of the limitations of a voluntary approach. “What we really want is to see a reduction in sales of unhealthy food and more and better availability of healthy products. Although mandatory business reporting isn't going to be the silver bullet for that it's a fundamental that needs to underpin everything,” she said.

Burt explained that in order for voluntary reporting to be effective it relies on companies that are transparent about their health, social and environmental impacts performing better financially than those that don't. “But we don't see that consistently,” she said. “We know that lots of companies that don't report or aren’t particularly transparent still do very well. On the other hand mandatory disclosure of data and the public scrutiny that comes with that leads to companies taking action to improve their practices [and] it also creates a level playing field.”

Tobi from The Food Foundation added that data disclosures done on a voluntary basis tended to be “patchy”, adding that out of home businesses were generally behind retailers in their commitment to transparent reporting.

Business overload

Not all speakers were downcast about the retreat from mandatory measures. Jessica Burt, an associate specialising in food law at legal firm Mills & Reeve, warned that “there's a real danger of overloading businesses” with mandatory reporting requirements citing new UK government regulations on dairy contracts and reporting obligations under extended producer responsibility as examples of additional recent requirements (though the latter have also been delayed, according to reports late last week).

As for businesses themselves, Charles Abraham, director of food platform at Sodexo, said that “having a consistent policy approach to food data reporting would be really helpful because it would allow us to work on one solution […] as opposed to individual businesses going out and solving it ourselves”. Asked whether businesses would engage with a voluntary approach, Abraham said elements of the industry would do so, noting that “those that take their responsibilities seriously will nearly always be a part of that.” He went on however to stress the need for policy makers to be “braver” at the outset of the FDTP in the expectation that data reporting will at some point in time become mandatory.

As for the eco working group, the workstream has diverged somewhat from the original proposal for businesses to report key sustainability and animal welfare metrics in line with the approach to health data. The focus has now narrowed to harmonising reporting of scope 3 greenhouse gas emissions for the food supply chain. The UK government is currently assessing – via the Department for Business and Trade and the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero – whether economy-wide reporting of scope 3 emissions should be incorporated into UK law (as is already the case for scope 1 and 2 reporting). The FDTP therefore plans to align with these requirements, rather than set its own mandatory reporting requirements to reduce the risk of fragmentation.

The group is also aiming to establish a mandatory methodology for voluntary food eco-labels amid a plethora of voluntary schemes, while Defra plans to work with the industry outside of the FDTP to explore how it can harness the market to support high animal welfare standards.

It all amounts to a significant scaling back of ambition from when the partnership was originally announced just over a year ago. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised given the government’s recent track record, but that won’t lessen the feeling among many frustrated stakeholders of another missed opportunity, and of a food strategy that contained some progressive policies (albeit plenty of holes) gradually being hollowed out into an empty shell.

Comments are closed.