Supermarkets have backed Dimbleby’s call for transparent reporting, but there are signs it may put them on a collision course with suppliers

The chain reaction from Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy (part 2) has been in full flow since it landed on government desks last week.

The PM may have sounded less than enthusiastic about Dimbleby’s plans for a wave on new taxes on salt and sugar when asked last week, but it quickly became apparent just how much work the food tsar had been doing behind the scenes to garner support.

Within 24 hours, a string of supermarkets had announced a show of support for another of Dimbleby’s 14 recommendations: his call for mandatory reporting on metrics including annual sales figures on all HFSS products, protein (including the proportion of sales that were meat), and fruit & veg, as well as food waste figures.

“What you have to realise is the extent to which CEOs, whether they are from supermarkets or fmcg companies, realise they have to change their businesses in order to break the junk food cycle,” says Dimbleby. “All of them recognised it but privately many of them have said they can’t do it without state intervention.”

However, the widespread support from retailers appears to have set them on a collision course with suppliers.

Henry Dimbleby

Henry Dimbleby

With the government already planning a major crackdown on HFSS promotions and advertising, as well as mandatory reporting on food waste, many suppliers claim supermarkets are set to pass the cost of these moves on to the supply chain.

FDF CEO Ian Wright told the BBC he believed the plans would be rejected by suppliers and ministers. “I think it’s most unlikely that they will ever see the light of day,” he said. “Partly because you are asking all sorts of companies to impart all sorts of confidential information that their competitors will gobble up with great glee.”

System change

Dimbleby, however, claims the FDF stance misrepresents the willingness of major companies to change the system. “The problem with trade organisations is if you are someone like Ian Wright, much as I respect him personally, to do your job you have to speak up for manufacturers paying your wages.

“The trade organisations have to realise that for supermarket CEOs it’s not just about selling as many products as they can any more. They want to help people lead healthier lives and this course of direction is inevitable.

“Even Boris Johnson’s reaction last week, when he was bounced into a response, doesn’t discourage me at all. What he said was he wouldn’t wish taxes on hardworking people and who would argue with that? That is not what I’m suggesting.”

One supermarket source says suppliers who oppose mandatory reporting face an uphill battle. “I think it’s clear what the direction of travel is on this as far as supermarkets are concerned,” the source says.

Indeed, the moves are the latest in a wider drive for transparency. In February, campaign group ShareAction mounted a resolution slamming Tesco for its lack of action on obesity – one it withdrew after the supermarket announced a raft of new measures across stores in the UK and Europe in March.

These included an overarching commitment to tackling obesity, including a new reformulation target. Tesco set an aim of 65% of total sales coming from products defined as healthy by the government’s nutrient profiling model.

So supporting the strategy was a logical next step. “Tesco was the first retailer to publish its food waste data, and this year we have begun sharing the details of our protein sales, so we support the call for mandatory reporting requirements,” says Tesco UK CEO Jason Tarry.

It’s not the only one going down this route. Last week, Lidl pledged ‘healthy or healthier’ products will make up 85% of sales by weight by 2025, up from 80%, and will report annually.

How transparent is the food and drink industry?

A new report by The Food Foundation claims supermarkets are dramatically outperforming suppliers when it comes to increased transparency on health, sustainability and greenhouse gas emissions.

Four out of 11 supermarkets (M&S, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Lidl) now have targets for sales of healthy or healthier food. Several others now have targets for sales of healthy own brand products.

Tesco and Sainsbury’s now report on the percentage of protein sales from plant-based lines. Tesco also plans to hike sales of plant-based alternatives by 300%.

Lidl has a public target to increase sales of fruit & veg by 35% by 2026.

The report finds supermarkets outperform all other sectors when it comes to transparency on almost all topics. Their reporting on and setting sale-based targets for healthy food represents a gap in most other sectors.

Source: The Food Foundation

Data programme

Dimbleby’s call for mandatory reporting was not the only recommendation that could have huge implications for the sector. He also called for ministers to establish a new National Food System Data Programme.

It would see government bodies including Defra, DHSC, BEIS and the FSA work together to oversee a huge set of data on health, emissions, food waste, and other metrics, which food businesses can use as a guide and to measure progress.

“If I could only do one of my 14 recommendations, then this is the one I would do first,” says Dimbleby. “People in government find it hard to understand but unless you have this system of data in place you will never achieve the changes required.

“One of my advisers [Ocado CTO] Paul Clarke and I spoke to [UK chief scientific adviser] Patrick Vallance, who is a huge fan of this approach.”

That message is echoed by Wrap, which is strongly backing the call for a National Food System Data Programme. This week it told The Grocer that, without such a system of evidence-based reporting across the industry, its would be impossible to achieve its latest Courtauld 2030 plans for a 50% absolute reduction of GHG emissions associated with food and drink by 2030.

“It’s even harder for greenhouse gas emissions than it was for food waste,” says Wrap special adviser Karen Fisher. “There is a huge challenge here with consistency of accounting approaches and with access to information needed to enable better decision making.”

If Dimbleby is to be believed, he is winning the battle for hearts and minds with his radical calls for change, right up to the supermarket c suite.

But the ultimate win will be to compile evidence that his proposals work. The battle to get that is only just beginning.