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Reformulation to fight COVID-19: Investors call on Tesco to boost junk food transparency

Investors are calling on UK supermarket chain Tesco to disclose the proportion of its sales made up of healthy food and drink products and set ambitious targets to increase these over time. ShareAction, touted as a responsible investment NGO, is leading these demands, joined by EQ Investors and Nest, which is a Tesco shareholder. This comes as links between obesity and worsened COVID-19 outcomes are elucidated, with pressure mounting on industry to aid reformulation.

“Our aim is to decouple growth from unhealthy foods. Simply increasing the availability of healthy products is not enough. If these products are not affordable and marketed effectively, they will not lead to changes in purchasing and consumption behavior. By committing to increase sales from healthier products and disclosing this information, we [ShareAction, investors and the public] are able to assess retailers’ efforts to increase the availability, accessibility and affordability of healthy food and compare these figures across the sector,” Louisa Hodge, Engagement Manager at ShareAction, tells.

Nest and EQ are members of ShareAction’s Healthy Markets coalition of investors. Hodge says that ShareAction is working with Tesco to support the retailer to make the changes called for. “We wish to help Tesco continue to build on the positive public view they have built during the pandemic and to support the public by ensuring healthy diets are the easiest and most accessible option.” The demands were submitted to Tesco at its AGM on Friday.

In response, the retailer states it would “take away” the idea for more disclosure to help consumers understand its actions, as well as encourage the rest of industry to do the same. Dave Lewis, CEO of Tesco, adds: “We are making large scale improvement to reduce calories, sugar and salt from our products and will continue to do so. We do publish some details in their ‘Little Helps’ plan, but we will check that this is clear enough.”

“It is always difficult to measure these things due to the number of products and their individual nature, but we do measure this for ourselves and will not change products unless it improves the health and taste profile. We will continue to work with health charities and Oxford University to improve the health profile of our basket and measure this,” he states.

Joining the ranks of competitors
As part of its ongoing Healthy Markets’ campaign, backed by investors with US$1 trillion, ShareAction is asking supermarkets to define and publish comprehensive nutrition and health strategies to drive healthier food and drink consumption.

Other major UK supermarkets, including Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer, have already committed to similar demands. Hodge says that this illustrates that if any obstacles do exist, they can be overcome. However, she adds that the commitments were very recent, so there is yet to be any concrete change – although she hopes to see evidence next year.

“Some supermarkets don’t yet collect the data to measure and report on this metric as it may not have been considered a priority. Profits and growth are also currently closely linked with the sale of unhealthy foods, and therefore [stores like Tesco] may be reluctant to publish these figures,” details Hodge.

This request follows the publication of a review of UK supermarkets’ plans to improve the nation’s diets earlier this year. The report found significant gaps in their public commitments and actions to help people eat balanced diets and tackle childhood obesity. Tesco came third with information being found on only 30 percent of indicators across topics such as product formulation, responsible marketing, affordability, clear labeling and corporate governance.

COVID-19 creates increased urgency
Mounting research is highlighting a connection between obesity and worse COVID-19 outcomes, which is adding new fuel to the UK’s “war on obesity.” ShareAction details that during the peak of the crisis, 73 percent of UK patients in ICUs were overweight or obese, compared to 63 percent in the general population.

“Food retailers have done a brilliant job in supporting communities and ensuring continued access to food during the pandemic. There is now an opportunity to continue to grow this support for the public by ensuring healthy and nutritious food is easily accessible and affordable for all. Retailers play a key role in this. In the UK, they are the recipients of the majority of food purchases. More precisely, £27 (US$33) out of a total of £38 (US$47) weekly spend on food and non-alcoholic drinks is made in supermarkets. By helping to build healthy and resilient populations, the impact of future health crises can be lessened,” says Hodge.

“We know that many families struggle to access healthy, affordable food, and that COVID-19 has deepened existing inequalities in children’s diets. Commercial organizations – including food retailers – play a huge role in shaping what young people eat and improving children’s access to nutritious food. We need supermarkets to be transparent about the actions they’re taking in this area, to drive further positive change that gives all young people access to the food they need to thrive,” adds Sarah Hickey, Programme Director for childhood obesity at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity.

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