The 2018 Access to Nutrition Index and the need for a “Charter for Responsible Food and Beverage Companies”

By Lawrence Haddad, Executive Director, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN)

I am a big fan of the Access to Nutrition Index (ATNI).  It is one of the few independent science-based mechanisms to fame and shame the 22 biggest food and beverage companies on their efforts to improve nutrition through the marketing and formulation of their products.

This week sees the launch of the third global index and it provides a highly credible set of scores. During my stint at the Global Nutrition Report the Access to Nutrition Foundation (ATNF) team were kind enough to undertake sector level analyses for us and I got to see some of the excellent quality assurance mechanisms put in place for the data collection, analysis and reporting.

As with most ATNI reports, there is good news and bad.

First the good: most companies are upping their game in terms of their scores. It is hard to know how much of this behaviour change is due to the Index itself versus responses to prevailing trends, but I suspect the Index has had a significant effect on many companies who want their investors to see that they take these issues seriously.

Nestlé is the highest scoring company with 6.8 out of 10, up from 5.9 in 2016, but, as a set, the average score per company is still low: 3.3, up from 2.5 in 2016.  FrieslandCampina and Kellogg show the largest gains since 2016, largely as a result of greater disclosure and more publicly available material on their efforts to improve nutrition.  These companies (and there are more listed in the report) should be congratulated for these improvements.

There is, however, plenty of room for improvement.

Consider the following:

  • Some company scores actually declined. For example, General Mills’ score worsened due to poorer data release and some companies such as the Brazilian giant, BRF, did not provide any data.
  • Of the 22 companies scored, 16 define one or more targets to reformulate their products, but only for some of their products, for some nutritional components and with considerable fuzziness over baselines and timelines.
  • Of the 22 companies, only 2 have targets relating to positive components of a healthy diet recognized in the ATNI methodology, such as fruits and vegetables.
  • Only 6 companies cover responsible marketing to children in ALL media.
  • Only 3 companies offer global support to working parents in terms of facilities for expressing and storing breast milk as well as paid parental leave.
  • Only 2 companies commit to labelling ALL nutrients globally.
  • Only 3 companies commit to lobbying in support of measures to prevent and address obesity.
  • Only 3 companies have global policies to make nutritious food more available and accessible to all, including low income and high priority populations.
  • Only one company has extended its policy on responsible marketing to children to adolescents in the 13-18 age group.

So the report clearly provides a basis for a “Charter for Responsible Large Food and Beverage Companies”, including the following:

  1. Commit to reformulate all products. Reduce the salt, sugar and fat where it needs to be reduced and increase nutrients and fibre-rich ingredients such as fruits and vegetables where it needs to be improved.  It can be a 5-year programme, but commit to it, and provide baselines, targets and dates so stakeholders can follow progress.
  2. Commit to having a programme in their companies that makes it easy for breastfeeding parents to express, store and feed infants with breastmilk; and provide parental leave. No exceptions.
  3. Commit to market responsibility to all children 0-18 years of age, via all media. No exceptions.
  4. Commit to not lobby against the introduction of diet related public health measures for which there is a scientific consensus. There may be debate over timing and implementation, but not over the public health benefits.

As I have said in many places, food companies must be celebrated when they get it right and show progress and called out when they do not.  This report does this in a clear, balanced and therefore powerful way.  And the more specific and transparent the commitments, the more powerful the plaudits and the criticisms become, because we can be more sure of the quality of the assessments.

Those who do not report any data to ATNF simply look like they do not care about their customers’ wellbeing. They do this at their peril.  The world is changing and the clamour for healthier food is only going to get louder—the best ethical and commercial position, surely, is to get out ahead of it.

When we look up the word “responsible” in internet search engines we get prompts for responsible travel, responsible investing, responsible government and responsible finance, but not for responsible food companies.

Food manufacturers, it is time to reach for the prize of being the most “responsible” company.  ATNF will reward you for it.  But much more importantly, your investors, your employees, your employees’ families — and your customers will reward you for it.  Who among you will be the first?


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Published 23 May 2018