What food companies dish up for us - study evaluates corporate responsibility in the food industry

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Source: oekom research AG

Munich, 4 May 2007 – Too much sugar, salt and fat: an unbalanced diet of low-quality food is making people obese and unhealthy. Of course, consumers themselves bear the main responsibility for what they eat. However, the food served up to us by food companies often casts them in an irresponsible light. Some companies are now rethinking their ideas. In its latest study, the rating agency oekom research investigates which companies these are and how far their commitment goes.

“The leading companies in the industry have begun to review and reformulate the composition of their products. For example, Unilever has just made a significant reduction in the salt and sugar content of some of its products. Groupe Danone will also be using less sugar in future, in its yoghurt products for example,” explains Isabelle Reinery, specialist food industry analyst at oekom research. oekom’s analysts looked at the activities of the world's 29 major listed food manufacturers and evaluated the extent to which responsible behaviour played a role in company policy. The evaluation was based on a variety of environmental and social aspects, including product responsibility. The top overall ratings, on a scale from A+ (highest score) to D- (lowest score) were achieved by Unilever and Groupe Danone, both with a B-, followed by Danisco with a C+. Besides criticism of the composition of their products, further accusations have been levelled against food companies by consumer associations and politicians in recent years: inadequate information about nutritional risks, misleading advertising and aggressive marketing. Reinery says that children, in particular, are the victims of this strategy.

The persistent criticism is bearing its first fruits: most companies now generally list nutrients and nutritional values on packaging. Confectionery manufacturer Cadbury Schweppes is cautiously venturing one step further: in the UK, information on its packaging recommends that the products inside be consumed in moderation. As far as advertising is concerned, a number of individual companies, for example Coca Cola, have in recent years introduced age limits below which there should be no more targeted advertising of unhealthy foods. Furthermore, some corporations are consciously expanding their ranges with healthier foods, such as, for example, vegetable juices free from added sugar and flavourings.

“These are steps in the right direction, but don’t go far enough. It remains to be seen how consistent companies will be in continuing to pursue this path in order to improve the quality of foodstuffs and provide the consumer with comprehensive and effective information about risks,” says Reinery.

The analysts also turned their attention to the ways in which raw materials for foodstuffs are produced. Monocultures, intensive use of pesticides, inhumane methods of rearing and slaughtering animals, overfishing of the oceans and child and slave labour are still a harsh reality. The corporations face immense challenges here if they want to organise their businesses along sustainable and responsible lines. The British/Dutch Unilever group, which is gradually introducing more environmentally sustainable forms of agriculture and fishing, once again shows that there are some good initiatives being taken in this area. For example, the company, working jointly with WWF, played a major role in the development of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label to promote sustainable fishing. Some companies now also include in their range products with labels guaranteeing social standards in the supply chain – for example the “fair trade” logo.

“However, far greater effort will be needed to make the production of foodstuffs environmentally and socially acceptable,” warns the analyst.

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