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ZUNYI, CHINA – JANUARY 25: An employee works at a chilli processing plant on January 25, 2022 in Zunyi, Guizhou Province of China. (Photo by Luo Xinghan/VCG via Getty Images)
Launching the Tortoise Better Food Index

Launching the Tortoise Better Food Index

ZUNYI, CHINA – JANUARY 25: An employee works at a chilli processing plant on January 25, 2022 in Zunyi, Guizhou Province of China. (Photo by Luo Xinghan/VCG via Getty Images)

Cheaper food doesn’t always mean better food. Products that cost less in monetary terms often have a higher cost elsewhere. The Tortoise Better Food Index – a ranking of food companies based on environmental, health and transparency metrics – aims to make the true cost of what we eat more visible

  • The Better Food Index scores food companies on key metrics from transparency to nutrition and environmental impact
  • Nestlé ranks first, despite scoring just 51 out of 100 – an indication that the sector has a long way to go to improve its impact
  • Farmers Boy and Neerock, subsidiaries of Morrisons, rank lowest

We’ve lived through many years of plenty, but something isn’t right.

The share of our outgoings spent on food has been dropping steadily since the 1950s. It’s now about a tenth of the average UK household budget and lower than the average for European countries – in France and Spain it’s 15 per cent.

There are a number of reasons: partly it’s because what we spend on housing has gone up so dramatically, and partly because – even though inflation is spiking now – the cost of food over the long term has gone down.

Chicken has gone from being a luxury item to our favourite meat; a kilo of chicken now costs less than a pint of lager. It’s not just chicken, the cost of all meat has fallen in real terms, along with cheese, milk, eggs and vegetables.

Food is cheap, which is another way of saying that the price we pay doesn’t reflect the true cost. And perhaps this is something we’ve known all along.

One of the costs we ignore is the environmental one. From clearing rainforest to grow soy for chicken feed or demolishing mangrove swamps for prawn farms, agriculture has a vast impact on nature. And it’s all happening largely out of our sight.

Other costs are to our health, and to the fabric of our society. When the footballer Marcus Rashford campaigned to extend free school meals into the summer holidays he reminded us of the vast numbers of children living in poverty in Britain, with over 2.6 million children living in households without reliable access to food.

Food in the UK may be cheap, but for households on the lowest incomes it is a struggle to afford nutritious meals, rather than ones that are just calorific. The least well-off families need to spend 42 per cent of their disposable income on food, after housing costs, if they are to eat a healthy diet, research by the Food Foundation finds.

Now food prices are rising, up nearly 9 per cent year-on-year in May, adding to a cost-of-living crisis that will widen inequalities. Making food more expensive isn’t the answer. Instead, we need healthier food that is produced at a lower cost to the environment.

The Tortoise Better Food Index, published today, shines a light on our flawed food system. The Index scores the 30 biggest food and drink companies in the UK, rating them on their transparency, social impact, nutrition, financial sustainability, and environmental impact.

These are the biggest food and drinks manufacturers and wholesalers in the country, by turnover. They are the businesses behind the meat, ready meals, sauces and soft drinks we buy every week.

The Better Food Index excludes retailers, focusing instead on companies further upstream. Some are household names; others will be unknown to most shoppers. The companies were given a “talk” score for their rhetoric, and a “walk” score for the reality of their performance, looking at a wider range of metrics than their published claims.

One of our key findings: there is no winner. Every company we looked at could do more to earn the trust of consumers, and give us greater insight into the journey from field to fork.

Nestlé is placed first, but its walk score – calculated by measuring the performance of a company – is 51 out of 100. Unilever is ranked second with a walk score of 49 and Cranswick, one of the UK’s biggest pork producers, third with a walk score of 47. The three companies placed lowest, Eight Fifty Food Group, Farmers Boy and Neerock, are all privately held companies producing white-label food for retailers – products such as pies and quiches that are sold under supermarket brand names.

Most of these companies’ unhealthier products were also among their cheapest. This is not a surprise: the market for processed food is bigger than for fresh and organic, allowing for greater economies of scale and lower prices. Out of the 19 companies that sell both healthy and unhealthy food, just 7 offered healthy products cheaper than their less nutritious offerings.

Traffic light nutrition labelling on the front of a pack is voluntary. Companies can choose whether or not to include it, and whether or not to show the lights in colour. Our data shows that of the 30 companies we survey, sugary goods which should have a red traffic light are 45 per cent less likely to have a coloured label or any front-of-pack nutrition labelling at all. 

One of the themes of the Index is a lack of transparency. Ten of the companies did not report “scope 3” greenhouse gas emissions – the term for emissions from a company’s entire value chain, from field to a retailer’s shelf.

This is a crucial tool for revealing the impact on the climate of a company’s operations. 

Among those businesses in the survey that do report “scope 3”, some seem to be significantly under-reporting. Mars UK reports just 56 tonnes of these emissions for 2020. 

Meat producers have the worst scope 3 reporting in the index, with only one of the six big meat companies reporting more than 600 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions across their value chain despite the fact that meat is a carbon-intensive sector.

Our Index is published at a time when political resolve to tackle the big questions around food appears lacking. From the future shape of British farming to the need to deal with the UK’s obesity crisis, there is little sign of direction from the government.

Plans to restrict the marketing of junk food have been delayed. Food producers face uncertainty over both labour and the prospect of post-Brexit trade agreements that could bring in cheaper food produced to lower environmental standards. The government’s food strategy white paper – a response to recommendations made by the Leon co-founder Henry Dimbleby in the independent National Food Strategy last year – is patchy. 

There are hidden costs to cheap food, but it’s also true that if those costs were priced in too abruptly – by putting a tax on meat, for example – the effects would be disastrous, and politically untenable. With a carbon tax, the cost of a kilo of lean beef mince would go from around £5 a kg to nearly £12, according to analysis carried out for Dimbleby’s food strategy. Instead, food companies need to tilt towards sustainability, as the energy sector has by steadily decarbonising the grid. 

The way we eat now has not taken shape overnight, but has developed over decades. It will take a concerted effort to reshape, and we can’t begin to do that if we don’t track it. 

As our Index shows, the food industry could do far more to give consumers a clearer picture of how our dinner plates are filled. 

To see the full rankings and analysis, visit The Better Food Index site here.