“Liars!” That was the forthright and headline-grabbing accusation made against government ministers by the hitherto mild-mannered RSPB on Wednesday. The charity’s ire was directed at Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove and Therese Coffey and was triggered by a government decision to scrap EU retained laws that require housebuilders to ensure new developments are "nutrient neutral" and therefore not contributing further to river pollution. RSPB chief executive Beccy Speight has since apologised for the provocative post on X (formerly Twitter) which went on to detail a series of examples of where ministers had broken a government promise not to weaken environmental protections. Yet the outburst speaks to a deeper frustration among environmental groups that Sunak’s government is perpetually backsliding on its green commitments, including net-zero.
This week saw a change at the head of the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero with Claire Coutinho replacing previous incumbent Grant Shapps who in turn has replaced defence secretary Ben Wallace following the latter’s resignation. What that means for the net-zero agenda remains to be seen, but it’s hard to argue that accusations of green backsliding don’t have more than a little substance to them. Take, for example, the delays to waste and resources policies involving extended producer responsibility [EPR] and a deposit return scheme for England (DRS], the latter of which The Grocer reported is now almost certain to be delayed until at least 2026.
One policy the government has followed through on is a ban on certain single-use plastics including straws and stirrers. That has motivated many foodservice businesses to switch to paper straws as a more ‘sustainable’ alternative. Yet new research published this week has cast doubt on how strong those sustainability credentials really are after tests found a majority of paper straws contained potentially toxic ‘forever’ chemicals. Belgian researchers tested 39 brands of straws for the group of synthetic chemicals known as poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The chemicals were found in the majority of the straws tested and were most common in those made from paper and bamboo, according to the study which was published in the peer-reviewed journal Food Additives and Contaminants.
PFAS, which are found in everyday items ranging from food and drink packaging to outdoor clothing and non-stick pans, have been associated with a number of health problems, including lower response to vaccines, lower birth weight, thyroid disease, increased cholesterol levels, liver damage, kidney cancer and testicular cancer. “Straws made from plant-based materials, such as paper and bamboo, are often advertised as being more sustainable and eco-friendly than those made from plastic. However, the presence of PFAS in these straws means that’s not necessarily true,” said researcher Thimo Groffen, an environmental scientist at the University of Antwerp.
Another environmental badge of honour that has faced scrutiny of late is that of carbon neutrality. Footprint has reported on several examples of businesses and brands that have backed away from carbon neutral commitments that rely on the controversial practice of offsetting in order to refocus on decarbonisation. Now, foodservice supplier Collectiv Food has said it is re-evaluating its carbon-neutral last-mile delivery goal as part of a pivot to “steering away from substitutions for direct emission reduction”. It said it plans to focus future efforts on investing in low emission vehicles for its deliveries and will also undertake a study to better understand the impact beyond emissions of its patented points of distribution (POD) model, which involves positioning chilled storage containers in under-utilised urban spaces in key city locations.
On the subject of chilled storage, Pret a Manger has been fined £800,000 after an employee became trapped in a walk-in freezer set at -18C for more than two hours. The incident happened at the food-to-go chain’s Victoria coach station store in July 2021 and left the employee in a state of distress and struggling to breathe. She was eventually freed by a colleague and treated in hospital for hypothermia. An investigation by Westminster Council found there was no suitable risk assessment for employees working in temperature-controlled environments, while Pret’s reporting system revealed there had been several call-outs relating to defective or frozen push buttons in the previous 19 months including one involving the walk-in freezer at the same location. Pret apologised and said it had since carried out a full review and enhanced its processes.
Also covered in Footprint News this week is a warning that the UK is falling behind in investing in alternative proteins; further evidence that ultra-processed food is harmful to health; and details of a fresh round of delays on checks on EU food imports to the UK.