The supply chains of the major supermarkets are under near constant scrutiny by the media, NGOs and consumers. Rightly so, as between them, the ‘big 4’ – Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons – account for around 75% of UK grocery sales. But in the scramble to hold supermarkets to account for their purchasing practices, the actions of the public sector are often overlooked.
This is a mistake as the public sector spends around £2.4bn each year buying food and catering services for institutions such as hospitals, schools and government departments. Therefore, it has significant power to influence supply chain practices for the better.
Acknowledging this fact, Defra recently commissioned a Plan for Public Procurement: Food and Catering. Its aim is to simplify the process of buying food for the public sector so that it favours nutritious, sustainable, affordable food that supports British farmers.
The ambition is welcome. Currently, public sector food procurement is governed by a myriad of inconsistent standards and guidance with the effect that nobody has much idea about what public sector buyers are looking for, least of all the businesses trying to supply them.
The new plan tries to harmonise standards across the board to create a level playing field. It also includes some notable positives from a sustainability perspective. For a start, the foreword is by the Prime Minister which suggests that food is reaching parts of government it often fails to reach.
The balanced scorecard approach also means that key sustainability indicators such as resource efficiency, health and wellbeing, and socio-economic factors must be taken into account by buyers when purchasing food for the public sector.
However, the new guidance is by no means perfect and, as historically has been the case with public procurement, there is still a tendency for price to override other criteria. For example, the requirements that all food served must be produced in a way that meets UK standards both for environmental management and animal welfare include the caveat that the buyer has the freedom to dispense with these requirement where this leads to ‘a significant increase in costs that cannot reasonably be compensated for by savings elsewhere’. Whilst this is an improvement on the catastrophic condition in the old Government Buying Standards that food should be produced to UK or equivalent production standards ‘where this does not increase overall costs’ it still provides wriggle room for procurers wishing to buy on price alone.
Weighting given to the various criteria has also yet to be clearly defined and from a sustainability perspective it will be important that criteria such as ‘environment’, ‘nutrition’, ‘water’ and ‘energy’ are not given significantly lower weighting than ‘cost’.
All things considered the Plan is a step in the right direction for public sector food procurement. And as consumers of public sector food we each can play our part in ensuring the government makes good on its commitments.
Food Sustainability Adviser – WWF-UK