Great strides have been made on ESG, but hospitality operators are still reluctant to be seen to intervene when it comes to the foods and other ‘edible substances’ they serve customers, argues Prestige Purchasing chairman David Read 

By way of introduction, a quote from Henry Dimbleby: “Our food system is one of the most successful, most innovative and yet most destructive industries on the planet. Diet-related disease has overtaken tobacco as the biggest cause of preventable illness and death in the developed world, and food is responsible for one-third of global emissions, whilst being the single biggest cause of biodiversity collapse, deforestation and water pollution.”

I sat in a meeting recently where a hospitality operator’s board discussed its sustainability obligations. Having been in many similar sessions in the past, I fully expected their conversation to be focused on how the pathway to better ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) performance might be accelerated, whilst protecting and enhancing the overall profitability of the business. Instead, the meeting reviewed its ESG performance solely through the lens of legal compliance. Predictably, it was a rather short conversation.

Reflecting afterwards, I actually felt optimism, as it made me realise just how far our sector has travelled on this subject. We still face a mountain of challenges, but amongst leading operators there is now a much clearer understanding of what must be done, and an increasing determination to do it. Change is difficult and not always affordable, but real momentum is now developing.

But there is one area where it feels like there remains some reluctance to act - our impact upon diners’ choice of the foods they eat. When I suggest that we should use our influence to help our customers eat better, I’m generally met with a sharp intake of breath, and I get responses like, “We are here to meet customer needs, not lecture our diners on what to eat”.

“Influencing” is after all a long way from “lecturing”. And every time we write a menu, we edit diner choice to some degree, by the nature of what we leave out, or what we don’t tell the diner. And every time we make an ingredient choice, we make decisions on behalf of our customers about what they might or might not consider acceptable.

For example, with the cost of labour increasing dramatically in recent years, operators have increasingly relied on manufactured products with lower cost and longer shelf life. Little consideration is given to whether the diner is aware that they may now be consuming processed or ultra-processed foods that contain ingredients that are not foods in themselves, just industrially produced edible substances that research is now increasingly proving to be harmful.

Even Pret a Manger sandwiches – from a brand whom I consider the paragon of virtue relative to many other sandwich operators - have “mono- and diacetyl tartaric acid esters of mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids, mono-and diglycerides of fatty acids” in their sandwiches. These are emulsifiers which are added to processed foods like mayonnaise and bread to prevent the separation of their oil and water components. Emulsifiers also give these foods a smooth texture and increase their shelf life.

Instead, I see our role as a sector as a mixture of innovator, educator and inspirer. For example, it’s widely accepted within the food sector that conventional meat production is an inefficient and environmentally harmful process, which we need to manage better if we are to reduce carbon impact. The way forward must surely be through menu innovation, enhancing customer choice, and exciting our diners to explore more sustainable dining options – through their own choice – and certainly not by taking conventional choices away, or lecturing them about how sinful eating a steak is. This is not only the best way to help our diners eat better, but executed well will be better for sales and margins too.

By its very nature food is a substance from which we cannot abstain if we want to carry on living. The choice we have as humans is not if but what we choose to eat. With government intervention focused for the large part on the simple avoidance of immediate illness from food, it leaves the food system itself to provide education about sustainable and healthy food choices.

The hospitality sector is the single point in the whole food system where the maximum contact occurs with the end consumer. Our opportunity is to provide a duty of care to our diners that improves their health and the planet, through innovation, education and inspiration. Now would be a great time to stop abdicating our diners’ choices and embrace this new role.