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Serious doubts raised over UK supermarkets’ efforts to improve diets and tackle obesity

UK’s top supermarkets urgently need to clarify their plans to improve the nation’s diets and embrace their responsibility in the fight to keep children healthy.

  • UK’s top supermarkets urgently need to clarify their plans to improve the nation’s diets and embrace their responsibility in the fight to keep children healthy – NEW report reveals
  • Major gaps exist in supermarkets’ public commitments to support healthy eating and fight obesity
  • Least evidence found on Asda and Iceland’s efforts. Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer most transparent on their plans, though information only found on just over a third of all possible criteria
  • Supermarkets most active around sugar and salt reformulation, healthier checkout offerings and traffic-light labelling BUT little information made available on their practices on marketing to children, pricing and promotions, marketing and composition of infant foods and how they define healthy products
  • ShareAction, backed by investors with $1 trillion, is today urging supermarkets to define and publish comprehensive nutrition and health strategies, and to set out clear plans, policies and data on their efforts to drive healthier food and drink consumption

The UK’s top supermarkets urgently need to clarify their plans to improve the nation’s diets and embrace their responsibility in the fight to keep children healthy and will face questions by investors, according to ShareAction, in its Healthy Markets campaign.

Claims are based on findings in a NEW report by Access to Nutrition Initiative (ATNI) which reviewed all information published by Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrisons, The Co-op, Lidl, ALDI UK, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and Iceland. It is the first-ever assessment of the UK’s ten largest supermarkets’ public commitments and actions to help their customers eat a balanced diet and maintain a healthy weight.

Using a well-established methodology, each retailer’s disclosure was scored against 120 criteria on key topics such as: product formulation, responsible marketing, affordability, labelling and governance, then graded into categories ranging from A to E:

• Band A = 80-100% of indicators achieved

• Band B = 60-79% of indicators achieved

• Band C = 40-59% of indicators achieved

• Band D = 20-39% of indicators achieved

• Band E = 0-19% of indicators achieved

Surprisingly, UK supermarkets’ transparency of their nutrition and health strategies is poor, with none of the relevant retailers achieving bands A to C – leading campaigners to question whether retailers have defined, robust strategies in place to tackle healthy eating.

For companies reporting on 20% - 39% of the indicators used, the highest grade achieved was D (20-39% of indicators achieved). In this category, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer showed the most transparency followed by Tesco, the Co-op, Lidl, and Morrisons. The remaining supermarkets scored on fewer than 20% of the indicators and were assigned Grade E, with limited information found on Asda and Iceland’s plans.

Interestingly, Tesco and Co-op are the only retailers to cite health and obesity as a ‘business risk’. In addition, although Tesco is the only business to publish some detail on responsible engagement with policy-makers, there is very little information across the board that retailers aren’t pushing back on government health policy.

While findings suggest the sector has the overall scope to do substantially more, supermarkets seem to be most active in reducing sugar and salt content of their products, moving towards healthier checkout areas and using recommended front-of-pack traffic light labelling.

However, there was very little clear information available about whether supermarkets have genuinely adopted policies on responsible marketing to children and also whether they are following international guidelines on the marketing and composition of foods aimed at infants and young children. These are the two key areas highlighted by the World Health Organisation. For example, ALDI UK, Waitrose, Asda, and Iceland show no policy on responsible marketing to children – an issue of growing concern to government and the public.

Other areas where reporting was particularly poor include supermarkets’ disclosure on their pricing and promotional strategies for healthy products and how they determine the healthiness of a product.

ShareAction is today urging supermarkets to define and publish comprehensive nutrition and health strategies, and to set out clear plans, policies and data on their efforts to drive healthier food and drink consumption. Furthermore, supermarkets need to ensure that these are rolled out nationwide across all their retail operations and store formats.

ShareAction is building a coalition of investors – which manages around $1 trillion – who recognise the risks and opportunities associated with this critically important agenda, and who wish to tackle this collaboratively. These include Nest, M&G Investments, BMO Global Asset Management, Jupiter Asset Management, and Newton Investment Management who will support the initiative by engaging constructively with companies to encourage them to meet the report’s recommendations.

Ellie Chapman, Head of Food and Health at ShareAction, says: “Given that two in three adults and one in three children in the UK are already overweight or obese, supermarkets need to integrate health considerations across their business operations and rapidly abandon the most harmful practices. However, we have very little confidence they’ve got a plan for this, given the fact there’s such little disclosure. With scrutiny from regulators, consumers, and investors increasing, failure to act is not only likely to have reputational consequences but financial ones too, as companies fail to capitalise on growing consumer demand for healthier food and pre-empt further regulatory changes.”

Inge Kauer, Executive Director of the Access to Nutrition Foundation, says: "Having focused to date on ranking the world’s largest food and beverage manufacturers, we are pleased to expand our scope to the UK food retail sector. We commend all ten supermarket chains for engaging positively with us during the research phase. Most of the food retailers we assessed appear to recognise that they have a role to play in addressing the UK’s diet-related health challenges. However, our initial review of these retailers' disclosure found that it does not provide stakeholders with a compelling explanation of how they are helping British consumers to eat more healthily. We hope our report will spur the UK's food retailers to substantially improve their disclosure on this critically important issue. Given the considerable business risks and opportunities that diet-related health issues represent, we believe it in the best interests of Britain’s food retailers to demonstrate to their investors how they are responding to these challenges and gaining competitive advantage from doing so. We are pleased that Share Action will be using the report to underpin its Healthy Markets campaign and hope that other stakeholders working to improve nutrition for all will find it valuable in their work."

Kieron Boyle, CEO at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity, key partners of ShareAction’s Healthy Markets campaign, says: “Though the scale of the problem is undeniable, we must be clear that childhood obesity is not inevitable. Close to 90% of the groceries we eat are sold to us by a handful of national retailers, and they each have a huge role to play in ensuring young people and families have access to healthier food options. As this report makes clear, the positive intent of many supermarket chains is not matched by transparency around what they are doing in practice. This matters to parents, consumers and taxpayers as well as investors, who might reasonably question whether a company is prioritising healthy practices if it isn’t reporting on them.”

Lottie Meggitt, Responsible Investment Analyst at Newton Investment Management, which manages £49.8 billion, and is a member of ShareAction’s coalition says: “The food system needs to undergo urgent changes for both planetary and human health to prosper. Everyone needs to play their role in improving the nation’s diets. For investors, understanding the actions food companies are taking is not just a reputational matter, but a financial one given the associated risks and opportunities in this area. This is why we welcome the publication of this report and join ShareAction’s call on supermarkets to commit to full disclosure across their nutritional policies and practices.”

Tasha Mhakayakora, Bite Back 2030 Youth Board member, says: “Young people in the UK are up against a flood of unhealthy foods, pouring out of our high streets, school canteens and supermarket shelves - it is affecting our health. We need the food industry to urgently stem this tide of unhealthy food and improve the flow of affordable, healthy options. We all must make sure every child and young person has what they need to thrive and be healthy, no matter where they live. Together we can do that, but we need to act now.”

– ENDS –

Notes for editors:

  • For more information, please contact David Clarke @ Rock PR 07773 225516
  • A full copy of the report can be found here.
  • Headline results of the assessment of supermarkets’ level of reporting are presented in the table below (percentage of indicators for which some information was found)
    Grade Retailers
    A None
    B None
    C None
    D Sainsbury (35%)
    M&S (33%)
    Tesco (30%)
    Co-op (30%)
    Lidl (25%)
    Morrisons (20%)
    E ALDI UK (19%)
    Waitrose (15%)
    Asda (8%)
    Iceland (7%)
  • Headline overview of the methodology: ATNI assessed the top 10 retailers by market share in the UK and analysed all publicly available information including sustainability/CSR reports, annual reports, website pages such as blogs, and any further publications aimed at investors (such as investor presentations). The assessment did not analyse any information prior to 2017 and after 18 October 2019 (the cut-off date). The methodology has been adapted from ATNI’s well established methodology used to assess global good and drink manufacturers. The methodology includes 120 indicators, divided into eight topics including governance, product formulation, affordability and accessibility, responsible marketing, labelling, stakeholder engagement and infant and young child nutrition. Examples of indicators include: ‘’Has the company committed to reduce levels or achieve a lower specified level of sugar?’’ or ‘’Does the company public a clearly articulated responsible marketing/advertising policy?’’ Companies were given a point for each indicator they reported on. The final score represents the percentage of indicators a company has reported on in total.
  • ShareAction is a campaigning organisation pushing the global investment system to take responsibility for its impacts on people and planet, and use its power to create a green, fair, and healthy society. We want a future where all finance powers social progress. For 15 years, ShareAction has driven responsibility into the heart of mainstream investment through research, campaigning, policy advocacy and public mobilisation. Using our tools and expertise, we influence major investors and the companies they invest in to improve labour standards, tackle the climate crisis and address inequality and public health issues. Visit or follow us @ShareAction to find out more.
  • The Access to Nutrition Initiative (ATNI) is an independent, not-for-profit organization that aims to improve nutrition for all. It focuses on encouraging the private sector to do more to address obesity, overweight, undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies around the world. ATNI develops and publishes a range of private sector accountability tools that provide comprehensive, consistent, standardized analysis of major food and beverage companies’ performance on nutrition. To date, ATNI has published three Global Indexes focused on the world’s largest food and beverage manufacturers, in 2013, 2016 and 2018, with a fourth Index due to be published in 2020. Single-country Indexes, called Spotlight Indexes, have been published for India (2016, 2020) and for the US (2018, 2021 forthcoming). This UK Supermarket Spotlight report is the first to focus on retailers, using a methodology specifically tailored to the sector.
  • Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity is an independent, urban health foundation. It works in partnership with Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust and others to improve health in the London boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark. Find out more at and follow @GSTTCharity on Twitter.

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