Risk Management Series 5: Food Sustainability

There are so many sustainability challenges facing food businesses. The first step is to decide what to measure and what framework to follow.

Food safety is a core sustainability issue – and sustainability is a core food safety issue.

The point is highlighted by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which call for everyone, particularly the poor and vulnerable, to have year-round access to sufficient safe, nutritious food and clean drinking water.

Food safety is a fundamental part of food security (SDG 2) and contributes to human health (SDG 3).

Safe food production is also fundamental to other economy-related sustainability goals. It improves economic opportunities by enabling market access and productivity, while good supply chain practice reduces environmental damage and food and water waste.

“As an industry, we can’t afford to take our eye off the ball in terms of food safety, but we also need to ‘do the right thing’ in the longer term on climate change and other ESG [environmental, social and governance] issues because, in the end, they can kill too.”

“Everyone is talking about sustainability – particularly climate change – and so they should be because it’s a really important topic. But the biggest impact food safety professionals can make on sustainability is to ensure that the food we eat isn’t going to make us sick. In this sense, sustainability has been core to the food industry for decades.”

So, Where To Start?

The reporting landscape is changing, particularly in the EU with the introduction of the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD).

This new legislation requires large food businesses to give as much weighting to environmental and social targets as to financial performance.

Meanwhile, in the US, where sustainability reporting is more often voluntary, some of it is in response to pressure from major buyers and investors, who want to discourage further government regulation.

“To date, we’ve largely experienced a ‘mission-based’ sustainability reporting culture. Now, it’s also becoming risk driven. With this ‘double materiality’, the obligation to report is growing in an increasing number of jurisdictions. It’s vital to understand this landscape and be alert to what’s coming down the track.”

“There are so many sustainability challenges facing food businesses. The first step is to decide what to report on, then what framework to report against. What is material? What is important?”

Why Is It Important To Publish Reports on Sustainability?

NSF’s experts emphasize the need to build the ability to report effectively and efficiently. As so often, both people and data play critical roles. Food businesses require access to specialist skills, either in-house or from external providers, and to increasingly sophisticated data collection systems.

Beyond reporting, a key ‘people’ factor lies in making sure staff in developing markets – both in-house and throughout the supply chain – are adequately skilled and qualified to manage production efficiently, avoiding overproduction and wasted resources.

Do It Right, First Time

A long-established concept from the quality management world, doing things ‘right first time’ should not be ignored in a sustainability context.

Achieving high quality food production efficiently, with zero defects and without rework represents a ‘win win’ in terms of both business performance and sustainability.

At the same time, today’s increasingly health conscious, eco-minded shoppers expect more from brands. They are more aware of what actually goes into a product, are more demanding and curious – and look for information that will help them make sustainable choices.

They demand clean, ‘free-from’, sustainably sourced ingredients. They scrutinize labels for preferred claims, such as ‘organic’, ‘non-GMO’, ‘plant-based’ and ‘raised without antibiotics’.

“In certain stores, consumers can now scan a barcode and gain traceability of its journey from ‘farm to fork’. They can see the farm that produced the ingredients, where it was manufactured, and other specific details about that product.”

Avoiding Greenwashing

Yet, according to research by the International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network (ICPEN), 40% of firms’ environmental claims appear to be using ‘greenwashing’ tactics that could be misleading and are potentially illegal.

Food businesses can counter such risks – and help the sustainability of products stand out on the shelf through verification by an expert independent third party.

GFSQ certification, for example, will not only ensure marketing claims comply with regulations, but highlight a business’s commitment to sustainability. Such transparency makes consumer trust and loyalty possible.

Today, the required level of transparency can be achieved through tech platforms that map the supply chain data used by the major retailers and food industry.

Food businesses must embrace digital transformation and invest in the technology solutions that are essential to meet consumer expectations in the future.

What’s The Solution?

  • For businesses who are well established on their sustainability journey, they’re already embracing carbon neutrality, converting their fleets to more sustainable fuels and have well developed policies for improving welfare – of employees, society, animals or the environment. For many more, though, the journey is just beginning.
  • Whether you’re yet to identify which of the UN SDGs you’re already most closely aligned with, or whether you’re considering reporting your first environmental scorecard, help is always at hand. Frameworks, reporting methodologies, consulting and advice are all available for businesses who are ready to embrace them.
  • If you’re starting with your strategy for becoming more sustainable in the future – or looking to reduce your impact on the environment in the present – the sooner you get on that journey, the sooner you’ll start to see improvements.
  • It’s not just your future business that relies on that – it’s all our responsibility to reduce our impact on the limited resources of our planet.

Contributors to This Article:

  • Lisa Spicka de Bavacqua, Global Director, NSF Sustainability Consulting
  • Wouter Conradie, Director, Supply Chain Food Safety, Europe and Africa
  • Rick Sanderson, Director ESG and Sustainability Risk, NSF Food, EMEA

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