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The Better Food Index 2023

The Better Food Index 2023

One year on, has sustainability progress been made in the biggest UK food & drink companies?

Introducing the Better Food Index

It’s been a year of crisis. The price of food in Britain is rising at its fastest rate in 45 years, and the proportion of UK households lacking access to sufficient food has doubled in the past year to nearly 18 per cent.

Agriculture remains a significant contributor to man-made greenhouse gas emissions, while recent events – including a severe drought in Spain – have highlighted the vulnerability of the UK’s food supply chain to climate impacts.

It’s also been a year of government inaction on food. Henry Dimbleby’s The National Food Strategy, published in July 2021, outlined a vision for making the food system in Britain healthier and more sustainable. The government white paper published in response last year stripped away many key recommendations including a proposed tax on salt and sugar in processed food.

The second annual update of the Tortoise Better Food Index, out now, shows us whether the 30 largest food and drink companies in the UK have turned this year of turbulence into an opportunity to transform their businesses.

“If you sell more healthy foods, you’ll make less money and you’ll get fired. So I think the companies are in a bind. One thing that they can do is not be actively wicked.”

Henry Dimbleby, author of The National Food Strategy

“The cost of living crisis, combined with the growing impact of climate change, underline the urgency of making our food system more nutritious, affordable and sustainable. This year’s Better Food Index shows us where progress has been made – and how much the companies that make our food have left to do.”

Jeevan Vasagar, Our Planet Editor, Tortoise

In this year’s ranking, Cranswick, a pork, poultry and convenience food producer, tops the table followed by Nestlé and Britvic.

Cranswick scored 33.1 out of 100. With revenue of just over £2 billion in 2022, it is just above the average company size in the Index. Cranswick has the most transparent reporting of all of the companies this year. This is a key focus of the Index – incentivising transparent reporting is crucial for driving change in the food sector. The Index also assesses companies on the affordability and nutritional quality of the food they produce. Cranswick performed strongly on these measures. 

Nestlé, the global consumer goods conglomerate and maker of KitKats and Cheerios, is both one of the largest companies in the Index (with revenue of £76.9 billion in 2022) and one of the most profitable (it had a profit margin of 17 per cent in 2022). It scored highly on social impact and environmental performance, but ranks lower on the nutritional quality of its products. It is one of only three companies in the Index to pay the Real Living Wage, sends zero waste to landfill and has low Scope 1 and 2 emissions and water consumption relative to revenue. Nestle scored 31.4 out of 100.

Britvic, the business that makes Robinsons squash, is ranked third in the Index. It has very good disclosure across the Index, reports low Scope 1 and 2 emissions relative to revenue, and leads on a number of social impact metrics. Britvic scored 31 out of 100.

The low scores reflect the fact that no company in the Index performs well across all the facets of operating a sustainable business.

At the bottom of the Index are Sofina UK (30th), followed by Müller UK & Ireland (29th). Sofina UK scored 14 out of 100 and Müller UK & Ireland scored 14.1.

Sofina UK, a subsidiary of the Canadian meat and fish processing giant Sofina Foods, and dairy producer Müller UK & Ireland, both have less transparent reporting and score worse on environmental performance than their peers in the sector. Sofina and Müller UK & Ireland did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Better Food Index: the rankings

Key findings

Ultra-processed foods. Eleven companies sell ultra-processed foods that contain more calories per £ than their non ultra-processed foods. 

Ultra-processed foods have been linked to over-consumption and an increased risk of conditions such as cardiovascular disease. In the UK, 57 per cent of calories are derived from ultra processed foods. 

These foods are likely to be nutritionally unbalanced – ultra-processed foods in The Better Food Index are twice as likely to be considered unhealthy according to the government’s nutrient profiling model. 

However, healthy foods such as fish fingers and tinned beans, which provide essential nutrients at affordable prices, can also be classified as ultra-processed under the NOVA classification. 

A spokesperson for fish finger producer Birds Eye says “Using the NOVA classification to assess healthiness of foods is inherently flawed as some definitions of ultra-processed foods drawn from NOVA are based on perception rather than scientific evidence.” The company said that while 93 per cent of its net sales are ‘non-HFSS’ – not high in fat, salt and sugar, over 80 per cent would be classified as ultra processed according to NOVA.

At five companies – Fletcher Bay Group, Dunbia, Hilton Food Group, Cranswick and Kraft Heinz – the number of calories per £ is more than twice as high in UPFs than in non-UPFs.

Dunbia said that over 88 per cent of its sales are from unprocessed products – such as beef and lamb cuts – some of which provide more calories than its ultra processed products, such as a beef burger. 

Kraft Heinz said that processing can have value – lengthening the shelf of foods, adding vitamins and minerals, and enhancing their taste. Cranswick, Fletcher Bay Group and Hilton Food Group did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Emissions. Twenty-six companies in the Index now report Scope 3 emissions, an increase from 20 last year. Scope 3 emissions refers to all the emissions that a business is indirectly responsible for, up and down its value chain. They typically account for 90 to 95 per cent of all emissions in the UK food sector, according to the climate action NGO Wrap.

Half of those that do report Scope 3 emissions, appear to underreport. For example, Moy Park, a meat producer, reported 80.2 tonnes of Scope 3 emissions in 2021, accounting for only 0.05 per cent of their total emissions. It is one of several companies in the Index that report only what is mandatory under the Streamlined Energy Carbon reporting requirement – Scope 3 emissions resulting from business travel. 

A Moy Park spokesperson said “We are committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2040 and our pathway to tackle Scope, 1, 2 and 3 emissions was developed alongside the Carbon Trust and validated by the SBTi. [the independent Science Based Targets initiative, which provides guidance on net zero goals]”

Data. The lack of farm-level data makes reporting accurate Scope 3 emissions difficult. Dunbia, a beef, lamb and pork company which currently reports only 4 per cent of its total emissions as Scope 3, has invested £1m to measure the carbon footprint of 500 UK farms by 2023.

Inconsistent accounting methodologies and misconceptions also disincentivise reporting. Companies such as Pilgrim’s UK and Avara Foods decline to disclose their Scope 3 emissions publicly, despite reporting to the Science Based Targets initiative. Avara said: “we do share our Scope 3 – but with organisations and partners who we are confident understand the detail and with whom we collaborate on emission reduction.” Pilgrims said: “we are not required to report full scope 3 inventories within the Streamlined Energy Carbon reporting requirement.”

Pay. Only 3 of the 30 companies – Nestlé, Unilever and ABF – pay their employees the Real Living Wage, high enough to cover their everyday needs based on latest living costs calculated by the Living Wage Foundation. This year, ABF has started to pay the Real Living Wage. In May 2023, the Real Living Wage was £10.90 per hour across the UK and £11.95 per hour in London.

Waste. Twelve companies with food waste targets do not report food waste data. Approximately one third of the food that is produced globally is wasted, and food waste accounts for half of the food system’s emissions. Without data, it is impossible to determine whether companies are on track to meet their food waste targets.

Nutrition. As the global obesity crisis worsens, people must be able to access affordable, nutritious food. Tortoise analysis has revealed that of the 25 companies that sell both unhealthy (high in sugar, salt or saturated fat) and healthy foods, 22 sell their unhealthy foods at lower cost per calorie than their healthy foods.

Sugar. Red sugar labels identify products that have at least 22.5g of sugar per 100g. Government dietary recommendations say that adults should not have more than 30g of “free sugars” per day. 

Companies with higher than average profit margins (over five per cent), have an average of 30.2 per cent of their products have red sugar labels in their portfolios, when weighted by sales data. This is far higher than the 7.3 per cent red sugar labels in the portfolios of companies with lower profit margins than average. 

Data 2.0. Privately-owned companies have 41 per cent more missing data points than public ones, on average reporting eight fewer indicators. The more transparent a company is, the better it performs on key sustainability metrics such as emissions reduction and gender equality.

Temperature Pathways. Twenty-five companies in the Index have published targets stating their intention to reduce their absolute emissions. Tortoise analysis has determined that meeting these targets leads to a projected increase in global temperature of 1.95°C by 2100. 

Ten companies have shown emission reductions in recent years that put them on track to meet their targets. However, half of the companies with targets haven’t published information about what their emissions were to begin with – making it impossible to accurately track their progress.

Walk the walk

The Better Food Index compares companies’ talk with their actions.

It gives each company a “Walk” score – for actions and performance against a range of metrics – and a “Talk” score – for commitments, statements and membership affiliations. 

The Index uses data from a range of sources, including companies’ annual and sustainability reports, non-governmental organisation research, information from regulatory bodies and Tortoise’s own research. The 112 indicators that comprise the Index have been selected because they

  • reflect publicly-available information;
  • use up-to-date data sources; and
  • relate to key issues in the UK food sector.

The indicators are organised into five pillars, weighted as follows: 

  • Environment – 30 per cent – assesses how companies affect the planet by looking at indicators such as emissions, energy consumption and responsible sourcing. 
  • Nutrition – 30 per cent – assesses the healthiness of a company’s products, such as by looking at their average nutrient profile and the amount of ultra processed food they sell. The Nutrition pillar is based on a sample of 15-30 products collected by Tortoise for each company to reflect its product range. The selection of products is weighted according to sales data, where available. 
  • Social Impact – 20 per cent – assesses how companies impact people and society, through measures such as the gender pay gap and modern slavery metrics.
  • Affordability – 10 per cent – assesses how affordable a company’s products are for the amount of key nutrients such as fibre, protein and fruit and vegetable content they contain.
  • Financial Sustainability – 10 per cent – assesses how financially viable their business is, through measures such as revenue growth and profit.

Each company is also given a Transparency score which captures how many applicable indicators it has reported on. The Transparency score demonstrates how open and transparent a company is on its social, environmental and economic performance. The Transparency score plays a significant part in a company’s rank, and helps to disentangle poor reporting from poor performance.

More information can be found in the Methodology Report on our website.

Research by the Tortoise Intelligence Team
Maddy Diment, Sophie Barnett, Will Mower, Joe White and Alex Inch. Edited by Jeevan Vasagar.