New body could set the agenda in food and drink for years to come

It took the government almost a year to respond to Leon restaurant founder Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy.

When it did finally produce its 27-page reply to his near 400-page analysis of the problems at the heart of the food industry, it was widely regarded as, in Dimbleby’s own words, “a list of policies rather than a strategy”.

But while many of his sweeping proposals – such as a raft of new taxes on HFSS foods, limits on meat consumption and a radical new approach to land use – were ignored, one key element of the plan has now come to fruition, with the launch of the Food Data Transparency Partnership (FDTP).

So what is the new body and how significant could it become in setting the industry agenda when it comes to the biggest challenges on health and the environment?

Last week, The Grocer revealed the partnership had been set a five-year mission to draw up a system of mandatory measurement to be used by the industry to measure its impact across three areas: public health (including HFSS and the war on obesity), animal welfare and supply chain emissions. A fourth working group will be charged with ensuring there is transparent reporting and developing the data to back it up, though ministers have avoided using Dimbleby’s term of a “national database” – possibly a step too far for a government uneasy about notions of a nanny state.

The FDTP will involve more than 60 key industry figures, headed by co-chairs Chris Tyas, the former Nestlé supply chain veteran, and David Kennedy, director general for food, biosecurity and trade at Defra.

The pair have emerged as among the most influential people in the industry, having headed the FRIF ‘war room’ body set up during the pandemic and maintained after the outbreak of war in Ukraine, as the supply chain faced a string of emergencies.

The partnership also bears the strong imprint of the Food Standards Agency, which, along with Defra and the DHSC, will co-chair its committees from a government perspective.

foundation earth score on left

Foundation Earth unveiled its labelling system in 2021

The red tape involved in developing common metrics for areas such as Scope 3 emissions, environmental labelling and animal welfare is already emerging as a major concern, with fears it could make developments like front of pack traffic light labelling seem like child’s play.

“There is a very mixed reaction amongst the industry,” says one supplier source. “We have concerns over the workload.”

“And at the end of the day it just doesn’t really seem like a Tory policy,” the source adds.

Indeed, coming after last year’s rowback on the proposed crackdown on HFSS advertising, and delays to environmental policies such as a deposit return scheme and mandatory food waste reporting, – not to mention the dismantling of PHE – the new partnership is seen as something of an unexpected jolt in government decision making.

Another industry source says: “To be honest I’m gobsmacked that the government has gone ahead with this. We weren’t sure the way things would go under [environment secretary] Thérèse Coffey and for a while it looked like it wouldn’t go ahead. But this is a huge development for the industry.”

With UK ministers said to be looking to unravel hundreds of EU laws, there is now a question over whether the FDTP’s requirements will in effect simply replicate them.

“In some ways this move reflects the direction of travel industry must go down, considering the race to net zero, health etc, but it is also a potential minefield,” says a legal source.

“If the EU had proposed this, no doubt the Brexiteers would all have been up in arms.”

There are also questions over how the body will interact with the Food & Drink Sector Council, now under former FSA CEO Tim Smith, which was also set up to tackle key challenges such as sustainability.

Yet the idea of creating a level playing field for reporting also carries powerful support. The likes of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Iceland, Greggs, Co-op, Greencore, Morrisons and Nando’s have already indicated their backing for what they have billed as an “historic transparency drive”.

What the government has promised

  • To leverage the collective energy and enthusiasm found across the food system and drive a real transformation in health, animal welfare and environmental outcomes through food.
  • To consult on implementing mandatory public reporting against a set of health metrics and explore a similar approach to sustainability and animal welfare.
  • To provide consumers with the information to make more sustainable, ethical, and healthier food choices and incentivise industry to produce healthier and more ethical and sustainable food.
  • To ensure a robust framework for tackling some of the fundamental questions for the food system, raising transparency and responsibility.

Source: Government National Food Strategy

Evidence-based policies

Meanwhile, bodies such as Wrap and IGD, which will also be closely involved, have already pinned their colours to a “target, measure, act” approach – in essence the philosophy of evidence-based policies behind the partnership.

But perhaps the biggest challenge facing the FDTP is not whether the industry will cope with the burden of bureaucracy, but whether it is given enough teeth to really provide a meaningful system of transparent data, which will satisfy a public increasingly concerned with reports of industry ‘greenwashing’ and dubious health claims.

The fact that, initially at least, the FDTP will not set mandatory targets has provoked scepticism.

“Voluntary reporting has totally failed to drive change at the speed required, as seen with the results from the voluntary sugar reduction programme, which delivered a 3% reduction against a 20% target,” says Barbara Crowther, coordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign. “It’s vital that the government maintains focus on establishing mandatory business reporting frameworks, and that heavy food industry involvement does not lead to dilution or delays.

“This partnership must not be used as a fig leaf for other measures it can take to support a healthier and more sustainable food industry, such as delivering the regulations on HFSS promotions and advertising or building on the successful Soft Drinks Industry Levy model.

“As a first step in transparency, we’d also like to see a commitment to publishing the membership of the partnership and its working groups, as well as clarity over timelines for public consultation and interim reporting.”

Courtney Scott, programme lead at the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, said in a tweet: “Without mandatory targets for action, will this move the dial? Transparency is important but it depends on the metrics that are agreed. With the right approach, data can spur action but it is the action that is crucial.”

But sources involved in the partnership argue it is the long-term nature of the programme that bodes well.

Ministers may have taken their time to respond to Dimbleby’s proposals, but the five-year remit means the FDTP should last well beyond the next general election. And with a Labour government seen by many observers as the likely outcome, the issue of a plan “not being Tory enough” may cease being a barrier.

In fact many, from both sides of the debate, believe Dimbleby’s report could yet go on to set the agenda for the food industry for the next decade, with the FDTP at the heart of the action.