Defra in the dock over sustainable sourcing

Jim Paice has been left with egg on his face after his department failed to meet its own buying standards on food procurement. With the angry Minister promising immediate action, David Burrows asks whether the Government really has an appetite for sustainable food?

It’s not the first time a Minister has been left red-faced on Radio 4, and it won’t be the last. “I’d hoped that we would be setting the pace and I am genuinely very angry, and we’ve taken this up with our contractors and everything will be put right shortly.”

By the time you read this it will be almost six weeks since Jim Paice was left squirming on the Farming Today programme after his department, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), was found to be falling short of its own buying standards on food procurement. At the time he was, undoubtedly, peeved, suggesting that if he had any hair left he’d be pulling it out if this happened again.

But is the Minister, or indeed the Government, really losing any sleep, or hair, over the food it buys? Or, for that matter, is the contractor in question, Eurest, which is part of the Compass Group? Are we really to believe that sustainability is a top priority for central government when it selects its contract caterers?

“Defra doesn’t know what it’s doing,” says Alex Jackson, project officer at Sustain. Jackson has responsibility for the ‘Public Money for Public Good’ campaign, which is focused on the procurement of sustainable food in the public sector. “This is further proof that – despite the rhetoric – Government is not prioritising sustainability when it comes to buying food with taxpayers’ money,” he says.

There was plenty of tough talk in the aftermath of the findings, with Paice adamant that the buying standards are not “optional extras” and promising to ensure this is “sorted out immediately”. Compass, meanwhile, has remained tight-lipped – as has much of the industry. Compass did, however, release one statement which referred to its “support” of the standards and its place as “the largest supporter of Fairtrade in the UK foodservice industry”.

Sourcing Fairtrade food is one of the 16 buying standards the caterer met – in fact it exceeded the target by sourcing 100% Fairtrade tea and Rainforest Alliance coffee (the target was 50%). It’s the two standards that it isn’t meeting that have got the likes of Radio 4 and Jackson interested and angered respectively.

The Government Buying Standards (GBS) were introduced by Defra and came into force on September 16. All central government departments must meet the standards, but Defra is the only one to have published its results. There are 18 standards to be met which cover a range of issues, from the use of tap water instead of bottled and the cooking of vegetables without salt, to pricing fruit cheaper than desserts and offering recycling facilities. Compass is meeting all of these.

The two it isn’t meeting involve the sourcing of 100% sustainable fish and a minimum of 10% of products to assured higher standards such as organic and LEAF. The failure to source sustainable fish has been a particular concern for Sustain. The group lobbied hard for Defra to include a criterion around fish, and the standard was developed outside of government and added after considerable pressure.

Jackson, who admits to having been left with his “head in his hands in despair” after meetings with Defra procurement officials, suggests that the real problem lies not with the caterers, but with the Government. “We’re getting there with [Eurest],” he says. “The real problem is that Defra don’t understand the standards, so if they don’t then how can they expect Compass to follow them?”
In its response to further questions from Foodservice Footprint, Defra was adamant that the fish standard had been met.”Compass fell short on one target, ensuring the minimum criteria to meet higher environmental standards, for example organics or LEAF certified products,” a spokesman said.

This kind of confusion has left caterers non-the-wiser about what is really being demanded of them, says Jackson, adding that herein lies the real issue for the sustainability agenda within public procurement. “A lot of the public sector is guilty of forgetting who the customer is. They need to remember that they are the customer and as such they can dictate the food they buy. All Defra needs to do is ask the caterer for X, Y or Z and if that isn’t delivered then they look elsewhere.”

That sounds simple, but can a huge company like Compass be expected to change its buying practices overnight? Some retailers have managed to respond rapidly to new sustainability agendas, in areas such as plastic bags and Fairtrade bananas, as have many foodservice companies. McDonald’s sources all of its fish from stocks certified by the Marine Stewardship Council; in fact the fast-food giant has higher standards in place than the Government when it comes to its sourcing of eggs, coffee and milk.

“The private sector seems to be more flexible and able to move to implement sustainable practices, and many have done so successfully,” says Diana Spellman, founding director of Partners in Purchasing. “But those that have moved understand the long-term goals, which is why they’ve been proactive rather than reactive.”

This idea of proactive change is something that others insist should stay front of mind for all those in foodservice. Examples include those that have made public commitments to Sustainable Fish City and gaining Marine Stewardship Council Chain of Custody; the likes of Sodexo, Holroyd Howe, Caterlink, Restaurant Associates, ISS Food and Hospitality and BaxterStorey.

Perhaps Compass will too? “They’re catching up,” says Jackson, “and partly because we had to explain to them what the standards were about. But don’t get me wrong, they are doing it because they’ve had us, Defra and the press kicking them.”

Indeed, it’s the “clever companies”, as Jackson calls them, that are making the moves before they’re kicked publicly. The Government may also find that some clearer guidance and a little gentle shove here and there, may see many more of its caterers join the ranks of the “clever” – and less of its Ministers on Radio 4 pulling out their hair.