Tesco has been threatened with potential legal action over the alleged pollution of the River Wye by two of its key suppliers, Noble Foods and Avara Foods.
In a letter sent to key executives at the retailer (including CEO Ken Murphy) this week, law firm Leigh Day accused Tesco of “unacceptable” support for “intensive chicken production at the expense of, and without regard to, the health of” the River Wye – the locality of which includes processing plants owned by egg supplier Noble and poultry supplier Avara.
The letter, on behalf of environmental charity River Action, claimed Tesco’s demands for eggs and poultry from the suppliers, “without any obligation being imposed on them by their customers to adhere to appropriate restrictions and standards”, had left the river in a “state of emergency”.
The law firm warned – unless Tesco imposed a series of improvements – that River Action was open to “all legal remedies to address the issues identified in this letter”, including potential claims “in connection with mismanagement by Tesco directors, in breach of their duties under the Companies Act 2006”.
River Action has long been in dispute with Noble and Avara over what it claims are high phosphate levels in the river, which cause algal blooms that cut oxygen levels and cause species loss.
It is estimated there are more than 20 million chickens in the Wye catchment area within intensive poultry units and 1,400 farming sheds, the charity said.
Evidence from Lancaster University’s recently published RePhoKUs Report suggested there were 3,000 tonnes of excess phosphorus caused by agriculture in the Wye Valley, it added, with up to 70% of the river’s phosphate load believed to be a result of agriculture “dominated by intensive chicken farming”.
And if the situation remained unaddressed, the River Wye faced ecological collapse, the letter said. “For example, ranunculus, once abundant, has depleted between 90%-95% over the past three years, in addition to significant reductions in salmon, invertebrates and swan numbers,” it pointed out.
“We are deeply disappointed at the lack of tangible actions taken by Tesco so far to address the appalling environmental impact of its supply chains in the Wye catchment,” said River Action founder and chair Charles Watson.
“The company does not seem to have registered that this river is facing ecological collapse due to the nutrient pollution caused by the intensive poultry industry. Tesco must not allow itself to potentially contribute to the destruction of one of the nation’s favourite rivers by continuing to procure its poultry products without requiring major environmental improvements from suppliers.”
River Action is calling on Tesco to commit to reaching the Leaf Marque standard in its poultry supply chain and to audit all suppliers against agreed standards by the end of 2022.
The supermarket should also publish poultry supply chain environmental risk assessments and secure commitments from suppliers to change practices to halt pollution – such as the introduction of a Manure Management Plan approved by the Environment Agency or Natural Resources Wales, by the end of 2022 for poultry units.
Free-range egg producing units, meanwhile, should have a nutrient runoff mitigation plan approved by the end of 2022, the charity said, while calling on Tesco make “the appropriate financial investments to support suppliers in meeting these required standards” and to “sever relationships with suppliers who are not able to meet these standards within a reasonable timeframe”.
In response, Tesco said it wanted to “play its part” in ensuring the protection of the river “alongside other actors across the food industry”, adding it had encouraged “all of our suppliers to sign up to the Water Roadmap as part of the Courtauld Commitment 2030, which looks to reduce water pollution in key sourcing regions, including the Wye & Usk catchment”.
Protecting and maintaining water quality and biodiversity in its supply chains was “an important element of the work we do with our suppliers”, it stressed.
“Together with our partners WWF, we have directly funded the work of the Wye & Usk Foundation to tackle water pollution in the area,” a spokesman said.
A spokesman for Noble Foods insisted the supplier took its environmental obligations seriously “especially in the Wye & Usk region – where we’re helping each of our producers take positive action”.
He added the business was “supplied by family-run farms in the region, which represent a low single-digit percentage of the poultry flock in the area”. But “despite our small footprint, as the UK’s largest egg producer we have a responsibility to lead the way for our industry”.
A spokesman for Avara, meanwhile, stressed “we fully recognise the issues” facing the river, adding the business was “committed to playing our part”.
Avara also did not spread litter on land, “nor is there a direct run-off from our farms, which are all indoor facilities, into the catchment”, he added.
“Every farm in our supply chain has a manure management plan and we expect full compliance with all legislation regarding litter management.
“We have been supporting projects that would have the capacity to divert all litter from our supply chain away from land and potentially create a circular economy for poultry litter. While these are making good progress, we are firmly of the view that meaningful and lasting progress will come from support and cooperation between all interested parties.”