Food Strategy: Investors call for mandatory sustainability reporting at large food companies

A group of leading investors have called on the government to require food companies to report on their health and sustainability credentials, arguing it would help channel capital towards businesses supporting the transition to a better food system.

The Investor Coalition on UK Food Policy, which brings together 23 investors with more than £6tr of assets under management, said the food reporting standards set out in the new Food Strategy published by the government yesterday do not go far enough.

The group, which is being led by Rathbone Greenbank Investment, has warned that health and sustainability reporting should be made mandatory, arguing that voluntary measures could lead to weaker reporting standards and inconsistent metrics, making it difficult to track progress between businesses and across the industry .

The government’s Food Strategy sets out the government’s plan to consult on “implementing mandatory public reporting against a set of health metrics and explore a similar approach to sustainability and animal welfare”. These efforts could be initially targeted at large companies across retail, manufacturing, out of home, food to go and online delivery businesses, it said.

The government also announced plans for a new Food Data Transparency Partnership to “provide 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.”

And Defra launched a consultation on proposed plans to require lareg companies to report on levels of food waste.

But as with other aspects of the Food Strategy the finalized plan stopped well short of the more demanding and ambitious measures proposed by restaurateur Henry Dimbleby in the review of the UK’s food ecosystem, which preceded the Strategy.

The Investor Coalition on UK Food Policy has stressed that mandatory reporting would help investors understand the risks food companies face and ensure they provide funds to firms committed to the transition to a more sustainable and healthy food system.

Reporting should “at a minimum” include sales reporting of fruit and vegetables, plant and animal-based proteins and sales of high in fat, sugar and solar (HFSS) foods, according to the investor group.

“Large food companies have a clear role to play in creating a healthy and sustainable food system, but voluntary action alone is not enough,” said Amy Browne, stewardship lead at CCLA Investment Management, one of the firms in the coalition. “Businesses require equal rights and opportunities if they’re going to thrive and remain competitive. Mandatory reporting – as recommended in the National Food Strategy review – would create a level playing field and represent the first step away from a future defined by the diet- related ill health that is destroying our planet and populations.

“Creating a food system that is good for the health of people and planet is a prerequisite for a healthy financial future. Enabling that future should be a priority for all long-term investors.”

A recent survey of 27 retailers, restaurants, and catering companies by the Food Foundation charity highlighted the dangers of a voluntary approach. The exercise found that just 18 per cent of supermarkets were reporting on plant-based versus animal-based proteins, but no restaurant chains or caterers were doing so.

Sophie Lawrence, stewardship and engagement lead at Rathbone Greenbank Investments, said the coalition would be pushing for the government to introduce mandatory standards as a member of the new Food Data Transparency Partnership.

“There are many risks and opportunities facing the food sector which are linked to issues such as health and nutrition and environmental impacts,” she said. “We also recognise the urgent need to improve health outcomes and address rising food in security and inequality, and we cannot drive change in our portfolios without consistent, high quality and meaningful information on the nutritional and environmental performance of companies.”

Echoing the concern of many food, farming, and environmentalers, the coalition said it was disappointed by the “low campaign aspirations” of the government’s response to the Dimbleby Review, which had set out a series of recommendations for how the UK’s food system could be reconfigured to become more sustainable.

Following the publication of the white paper, the government has launched a series of consultations, including one on how to improve food waste reporting in England, and another to determine how to public sector food and catering procurement systems can deliver more positive health, environmental, animal welfare and socio-economic impacts.

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