New sustainable development initiative for the food industry

United Kingdom

The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has published a consultation paper on a draft Food Industry Sustainability Strategy (FISS). Aimed at improving the food and drink industry's environmental, economic and social performance, it says that implementing the voluntary measure in the strategy will help the industry to ensure that it has an internationally competitive future. However, the initial direction of the consultation indicates that specific regulation of this area in the near future is unlikely. 

This article covers some the environment-related issues in the strategy, touches on a few of the health and safety matters and examines the likely implications for the food industry.

Sustainable development has become a major focus of EU and UK Government policy in recent times. Popularly defined as ensuring a better quality of life for everyone, now and for generations to come, it is a nebulous concept, open to a number different interpretations and actions. However, broadly speaking it is usually intended to ensure economic growth without jeopardising the protection of the environment and the social needs of the individual. For several years in the UK, the Government has encouraged industry to develop sector sustainability strategies setting out best practice. The FISS, which is an integral part of this policy, stems from a commitment in the 2002 Sustainable Farming and Food Strategy to work with all sectors of the food industry beyond the farm, to develop a strategic direction and to set priorities. This work was taken forward by the Stakeholder Group, announced on 7 March 2003, which consists of representation from Government, the food and drink sector and consumer and environment groups.

The FISS examines a range of possible environment impacts, not least of which is energy consumption with the resultant emission of greenhouse gases. The food and drink sector was responsible for around 14% of UK business energy consumption in 2002, as well as adverse environmental effects arising from food transport. Water use is another area identified where the sector has a significant impact, as it abstracts about 10% of the total for the UK, as well as using substantial amounts from the public water supply. In 1998-1999 a survey found that 2.6 million tonnes of food waste was produced in 1998-1999, of which 69% was recovered, re-used or recycled, 25% was disposed of by landfill and the rest disposed of by other means. The sector also the source of about 10% of the industrial and commercial waste generated in the UK, and is of particular importance for certain waste streams, such as packaging.

One of the ways that the FISS aims to encourage progress on lessening these environment impacts is by promoting closer involvement with government programmes such as Envirowise, the Carbon Trust and the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP).

On health and safety, the consultation refers to the 2000 Health and Safety Commission (HSC) strategy 'Revitalising Health and Safety' which sets targets for a 5% reduction in fatal and major incidence rates in key areas by 2004, and a 10% reduction by 2010. DEFRA says that highlighting health and safety initiatives and best practice in the strategy will result in less industry–related accidents and injuries.  Examples referred to are a voluntary skills passport for employees and setting of standards for health and safety within the food manufacturing industry.

The strategy also includes reference to food safety and food nutrition, with particular reference to the Department of Health White Paper "Choosing Health," published in November 2004, and associated White Papers on delivery of this, published in March 2005. These refer to the aim of reducing obesity by way of the food industry providing healthier choices and options, restricting the promotion of certain foods to children, and adopting clear standards for food labelling. This is all part of the social corporate responsibility implications of sustainability. (In this specific area there is a threat of legislation from both the UK government and the European Commission if effective self-regulation in particular in relation to advertising to children is not implemented in the next few years.) 

The Regulatory Impact Assessment (RIA), published alongside the consultation document does not advocate additional regulation to improve the sustainability of the food industry in general. It states that industry sustainability is already highly regulated, with much of this regulation driven by the EU and applying across sectors. Therefore, it concludes, increased regulation for a specific industry would be grossly unfair. DEFRA also points out that voluntary industry sustainability strategies have been successful in encouraging sustainable behaviour by a wide variety of sectors. Therefore further regulation in this area looks highly unlikely in the near future.

The consultation paper states that the benefits arising from a more efficient and sustainable industry are well recognised and potentially very large. However, it also admits that it is difficult to quantify the likely costs and benefits of FISS implementation on the food and drink industry. It is therefore looking to the industry to provide information to inform this question, as well as to give its views on what further actions might be taken by industry, Government and others to encourage the widespread adoption of best practice. Proposed targets and key performance indicators contained within FISS to enable progress to be measured, are also open for comment.

The consultation paper argues that the food industry's past performance on sustainability has been variable and that failure to address the key sustainability issues could adversely affect its efficiency, competitive position and profitability. The impacts of implementing the FISS are likely to vary enormously within and between sectors and sub-sectors, and will depend on the level of participation by individual businesses. While implementing the environment and corporate social responsibility related initiatives of the strategy will require taking action above and beyond the legal minimum, the potential pay-offs are increased protection of the environment, a reduction in energy, water and waste disposal costs, and enhanced standing with shareholders, employees and the public.  Further competitive advantage may be gained if products can be marketed as 'green' or 'healthy', but care should be taken that these claims are properly substantiated.

Comments on the draft strategy and initial Regulatory Impact Assessment should be sent to DEFRA by 30 June 2005.

Please click here for the draft FISS. This will open a PDF in a new window.