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Sensemaker: Anonymous food

Sensemaker: Anonymous food

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Liz Truss, the UK’s foreign secretary, said it was now UK policy to “push Russia out of the whole of Ukraine” (more below).
  • Former senior officers in Colombia’s armed forces admitted murdering innocent people during the country’s counter-insurgency, speaking before an audience of relatives of the dead.
  • A Ukrainian officer in Dnipro said Elon Musk’s satellite-based Starlink web service “is what changed the war in Ukraine’s favour”.

Anonymous food

Co-op’s New York Deli Sandwich is a crowd-pleaser. It’s £3.75 for 413 calories of pastrami, Monterey Jack cheese, sauerkraut, gherkin, mustard mayonnaise and bread, and it won a first-place prize in the sandwich category of the Quality Food Awards. 

As part of Co-op’s own-brand “irresistible” range, the sandwich’s packaging says “packed for Co-op”, but makes no mention of who actually made it. In fact, it’s made by Greencore – an entirely separate company. Greencore doesn’t just make own-brand sandwiches for Co-op, but M&S, Asda and other supermarkets too.

Greencore is one of the biggest food companies that you’ve never heard of. It makes almost two million sandwiches a day and has annual revenues of £1.3 billion. Like other “private label” companies, its name is rarely if ever mentioned on its products, but…

  • private label products account for over half the food sold in the UK;
  • that share is likely to rise as inflation bites; 
  • and experts worry that the opaque nature of these companies hide important and sometimes troubling information about their wages, working conditions and environmental impact. 

“We need to know more about private label companies,” says Adele Jones of the Sustainable Food Trust. “They need to be just as transparent as the supermarket, restaurant, or whoever the endpoint is.” 

Other private label companies with turnovers in the hundreds of millions include Boparan Holdings, a meat producer, Fletcher Bay Group (fruit and meat), and Bakkavor (fresh food).

But joining the dots between own-brand supermarket products and the companies that make them is far from simple, meaning it’s hard for consumers to make informed choices about the firms they’re supporting. Here’s what we found by looking at open-source material such as Facebook posts, tweets, supermarket supply maps, food award results and factory news:

  • Greencore, headed by Deputy CEO Kevin Moore, has 16 British plants where it makes own-brand foods for M&S, among others. Its Northampton plant makes M&S’s plant-based ‘Plant Kitchen’ sandwiches and wraps.
  • Bakkavor, led by CEO Ágúst Gudmundsson, has 23 factories across the UK. It makes ready meals for Tesco under the brand The City Kitchen and baked goods under the brand name The Pizza Company. It also supplies buns and desserts to Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Waitrose.
  • International Procurement & Logistics, led by CEO Martin Smith, is owned by Asda but operates as a separate company. It provides Asda with its own-brand fruits, wine and now meat, having acquired British meat companies Forza and Kober.
  • Fletcher Bay Group, led by CEO David Gray, owns Berryworld and The Orchard Fruit Company, providing berries, citrus and stone fruits to several retailers including Tesco, Aldi, Morrisons and Waitrose. It has a meat brand, Tendercut Meats, producing raw and ready-to-cook lamb, beef and pork chops to Morrisons, as well as a deboned meat business called Belwood Food.

Data collected by Tortoise for our Better Food Index, launched in beta today, shows that 16 of the 30 biggest UK food producers by turnover are private label companies. 

Wages. Not one of these companies has a living wage accreditation, meaning their workers aren’t guaranteed an hourly wage of £9.90 an hour, although Greencore says it pays the living wage at “​​many” of its sites.

Accidents. Between them, the 16 companies received 15 health and safety fines totalling £5.47 million over the past three years. One of these was issued after a worker at Bakkavor was crushed in a cooking machine in Lincolnshire. Greencore’s most recent penalty, five years ago, was a £1 million fine for the death of a contractor at a cake factory. Fletcher Bay Group and IPL had no fines. Few companies provided data on injuries, but judging by its frequency rate, Greencore had 81 accidents in 2021.

Emissions. The 13 companies that published emissions data produced a combined 29 million tonnes of greenhouse gases in the most recently reported year, equivalent to more than 40 per cent of the emissions from all the UK’s cars. 

Compared with other companies in the top 30 UK food producers by turnover – including household names like Nestle, Unilever and Heinz – private label companies tend to fall behind on transparency on environmental and social metrics:

  • Half the private label companies failed to publish emissions figures for their supply chains, compared with a quarter of branded companies. Greencore is an exception.
  • Among the least transparent were Fletcher Bay Group and IPL. Both failed to report on energy usage despite each making over £600 million in sales, while IPL also omitted to give a figure for its emissions.
  • 11 of the 16 private label companies failed to publish figures for injury rates.

Our analysis comes as consumers turn increasingly to own-brand goods because of the rising cost of living. 

A spokesperson for Greencore said the company had an “industry-leading approach” to safety, sustainability and employee welfare. A spokesperson for M&S said the supermarket only works with trusted suppliers that adhere to sourcing standards on animal welfare, human rights and working conditions.

Tortoise’s Better Food Index ranks the UK’s 30 largest food companies by performance and transparency based on key measures of sustainability, social responsibility, affordability and nutrition. The first full dataset and ranking will be published in June.

Additional reporting by Joseph White, Veronika Halamkova and Alex Inch.


CAPITAL ECONOMY, BUSINESS AND FINANCE

Netflix numbers
Much was made of Netflix’s announcement last week that it has lost 200,000 subscribers so far this year. The company explained this partly by pointing to 700,000 lost subscribers in Russia because of the war in Ukraine, but it expects to lose another 2 million subscribers by June. Growth at the streaming giant has in fact been slowing for a while. Last year it was flat in Latin America and fell by more than a third in Asia despite increased subscription fees. New account numbers fell in all of Netflix’s big markets but especially in the US, where it gained nearly 5 million fewer new subscribers than in 2020. That may have been a bumper subscriber year because of Covid, but the company’s post-pandemic hangover is made worse now because most of its content costs are fixed and contracted for several years ahead. It spent a record $17 billion last year on content, has debts of $20 billion and a stock price that’s fallen by nearly three quarters since last autumn. This doesn’t presage boom times for older studios, which are struggling to get bodies back into cinemas. But one studio executive still said the schadenfreude “sure feels f***ing good”.


CULTURE soCIETY, IDENTITY AND BELONGING

Commons porn
It’s unlikely the Conservative MP who briefed the Mail on Sunday that the deputy leader of the opposition was crossing and uncrossing her legs to distract Boris Johnson meant to open a “can of worms” overflowing with accusations of sexism and misogyny within his party. But he has. The accusations include two from female ministers who say a conservative MP was seen watching porn in the House of Commons and in a committee meeting. The ministers told the 2022 group, a new group of female MPs and peers, on Tuesday night that they had both seen the same man watching porn on his phone. They also informed the Tories’ chief whip, Chris Heaton-Harris, who has referred the matter to the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS). The name of the MP has not been made public and the Venn diagram of conservative MPs who sat near a female minister in the Commons and on a select committee last week isn’t small. It’s also unclear what will happen when the name is revealed. Heaton-Harris said he’ll take “appropriate action” when the ICGS investigation is concluded. The prime minister told the Commons yesterday sexual misconduct was “grounds for dismissal”, in response to a question about a Sunday Times story on 56 MPs, including three Cabinet ministers and two Labour frontbenchers, who have been accused of sexual misconduct. But Imran Khan, the Conservative MP found guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy, although booted from the party, has still not resigned from his Wakefield seat. 

TECHNOLOGY AI, SCIENCE AND NEW THINGS

Fire and Brimstones 
Last night Liz Truss said the UK was “doubling down” on its policy of helping Ukraine remove Russian troops from all of Ukraine including Crimea and eastern Donbas, occupied since 2014. She said that meant sending tanks and planes as well as the portable weapons systems already dispatched to the war. A few hours earlier, Putin told a North Korea-style audience in St Petersburg his response to countries “meddling” militarily in Ukraine would be “lightning quick”, with weapons “no one else can boast of having”. This could have been another allusion to his beloved hypersonic missiles, or to chemical or tactical nuclear weapons. This morning Ben Wallace, the UK’s defence minister, had a chance this morning to walk back some of Truss’s bravado. He half took it, backing her on the long-term aim of restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity but equivocating on tanks and planes. What has been added to the list of promised hardware is a consignment of hundreds of Brimstone anti-ship missiles, which can be launched from land or air, have a range of 37 miles and could take out most of the Russian navy ships waiting to attack Odesa. 


The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

“Unlawful care
The UK’s High Court says the government acted unlawfully moving elderly hospital patients back to care homes early in the pandemic without negative Covid tests. Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock, the then health minister, apologised and said they wished they’d known more, earlier, about asymptomatic transmission of the virus. The “unlawful” ruling is progress. It brings some comfort to two women who brought the claim on behalf of their dead fathers, and helps to establish parameters for the public inquiry the government has promised. But for Johnson and Hancock to claim now they didn’t know enough about asymptomatic transmission in the spring of 2020 to make good on their promise to protect care home residents is unconscionable. It was clear to anyone within sight of a newspaper or earshot of a radio, weeks before Covid ever reached the UK’s shores, that asymptomatic transmission was the virus’s defining feature and the whole reason it threatened a public health disaster. More than 12,500 deaths in care homes in March and April 2020 involved Covid. Lies upon lies.


Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Siberia burning

It’s not even May, and the taiga is on fire again. Hundreds of forest fires are burning from Omsk oblast in central Siberia to the Russian Far East, before some of the vast region’s lakes have melted. The smoke is drifting right across the Pacific and has been detected in Arizona, and Russia’s fire-fighting capacity is feared to be severely depleted because the military and most of its helicopters is otherwise engaged in Ukraine. “There’s no question that Ukraine has been a huge drain on resources,” Marc Cancian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies tells the WaPo. Siberia should not be burning this early in the year. It’s doing so because climate change is turning its trees to kindling – and has been since before this paper was published 13 years ago. 

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what we’ve missed. News tips and story ideas are welcome. Email them to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Kim Darrah
@Kimgidarrah

With additional reporting by Giles Whittell, Phoebe Davis and Ed Barnes.

Photographs Getty Images


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