Pressure from shareholders has been steadily growing on supermarkets to be more transparent about the health credentials of the food they sell.
But the latest move by major manufacturer Unilever will be viewed as a big coup for campaigners out to make the industry more accountable in the war on obesity.
In May, ShareAction, a coalition including pension fund giant Nest, Guy’s & St Thomas’ Foundation and JO Hambro Capital Management, had its first major breakthrough when Tesco agreed to a raft of new measures across its UK stores, with the aim of 65% of its sales coming from products defined as healthy under the government’s nutrient profile model (NPM).
Now Unilever has also agreed to set new targets to grow the proportion of its products deemed healthy under the NPM by October in advance of its 2023 AGM, and to submit these targets for shareholder scrutiny.
It comes after the Marmite and Hellmann’s maker clashed with ShareAction over its use of an internal metric to measure the healthiness of its products, which it used as the basis to claim 61% of its food and drink sales were derived from products with “high nutritional standards”.
ShareAction disputed the figure, citing an independent review which estimated it to be just 17%.
“We share a common belief in the importance of having an ambitious long-term strategy for nutrition and health, and that companies should publish ambitious targets to deliver against,” Hanneke Faber, Unilever president of foods & refreshment, said today.
And whilst Unilever is the first major manufacturer to add its name to this cause, it follows other significant moves which could force suppliers to be more transparent in the HFSS debate.
Last week a raft of supermarkets reiterated their support for proposals in Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy for “bold” new laws, which would force retailers and suppliers to report on a level playing field of metrics about sales of healthy food as well as issues such as food waste.
These calls have been picking up speed despite uncertainty over the government’s resolve to tackle obesity, amid continued speculation of a backtrack over its junk food clampdown as well as its failure to publish a white paper in response to the NFS within six months, as had been promised.
Indeed, it increasingly looks as if the future course of public reporting may now be set by the big supermarkets and suppliers themselves.
The consequences for suppliers look set to be huge.
Already we are seeing overhauls of ranges in advance of the government’s ban on HFSS promotions, and as the likes of Unilever set the bar higher, smaller suppliers will face huge pressure to follow suit, even if they don’t have anything like the reformulation budgets to match.
All this is even more interesting when taking into account another government response yet to be published. It has still not finalised its proposals in the wake of the now-defunct PHE’s review of the NPM, which, as The Grocer revealed way back in 2018, would make the model far more stringent and bring thousands more products under its scope.
With Unilever, Tesco et al pinning their sales to the NPM, that review could have an even more drastic impact on the market – if, of course, it ever sees the light of day.