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  1. Analysis
December 23, 2009

Sustainability moves up the agenda as brighter 2010 beckons

In spite of the global downturn, 2009 turned out to be an eventful year for the food industry. Economic recovery, albeit a slow and slightly faltering one, should bring equally if not more interesting times. Ben Cooper looks at what is likely to be dominating the headlines in the coming year.

In spite of the global downturn, 2009 turned out to be an eventful year for the food industry. Economic recovery, albeit a slow and slightly faltering one, should bring equally if not more interesting times. Ben Cooper looks at what is likely to be dominating the headlines in the coming year.

As 2009 closes and the food industry prepares for a well-earned break – and a chance to consume far too much of its own product – attention inevitably turns to what might be dominating the headlines over the next 12 months.

In this diverse and unpredictable industry, soothsaying is a risky business but the latter part of the year has at least provided one no-brainer for any crystal-ball gazer. The first months of 2010 will see the resolution of the Kraft Foods-Cadbury takeover battle. Indeed, Kraft and Cadbury have even made sure we have finished the year with a cliffhanger.

Kraft certainly found Cadbury a tougher nut to crack than it first imagined and the UK firm has grown stronger during its defence. A safe prediction is that Kraft will have to raise its current offer substantially, but even that might not be enough. The possibility of counter-bids or alternative Cadbury defence strategies remains but these will are only likely to be revealed once an enhanced Kraft offer is on the table. In the meantime, Cadbury has shown itself more than capable of rebuffing Kraft on its tod, so to speak.

And even if Kraft does up the ante there is a real possibility that Cadbury will not need any help, investors will back the current management plans, and the bid will expire. If that happens, perhaps the interesting question will be what Cadbury itself will do later in the year.

Although it may have seemed otherwise in recent months, there are other companies to consider apart from Cadbury and Kraft as we move into 2010. In the US, Dean Foods will be bedding down its acquisition of soy specialist Alpro, building its soy business in the US, while continuing to implement a US$300m cost-cutting plan. However, with dairy prices set to rise in 2010, it could be a challenging year for Dean.

Another company with some bedding down to do is JBS, which had not so much an acquisitive year in 2009 as a voracious one. The Brazilian meat specialist should be fairly busy digesting Pilgrim’s Pride, Bertin and Tatiara next year. General Mills, meanwhile, looks set to continue to build its overseas business, notably through its Cereal Partners Worldwide joint venture with Nestlé.

In addition to the expected rises in dairy prices, food companies can expect to face rising prices across a range of agricultural commodities during the coming year, including cocoa. Indeed, the rising cost of cocoa could make 2010 a difficult year for chocolate manufacturers. Some believe Lindt, for instance, could become a takeover target though its share structure may make this unlikely.

Wessanen can be expected to name its new CEO early in 2010 but is another food company with its work cut out in the coming year, as it attempts to exit the US and refocus its business on Europe.

Among retailers, few had a better 2009 than Waitrose, the launch of its Essentials line appearing perfectly timed. The retailer plans to open more stores in 2009, while next year will see Waitrose begin to develop the Duchy Originals brand, for which it acquired the rights during 2009. That might be a tough proposition given how the organic sector suffered during the downturn but Waitrose is on a roll so nothing’s impossible.

Another retailer to watch in 2010 will be Tesco. Not perhaps a sensational prediction given Tesco’s power and profile but 2009 was a relatively quiet year for a company accustomed to the limelight. Criticised for its hubris in its plans to take on the US market, Tesco’s stateside sojourn is not over. It may have made some misjudgements but Tesco’s US plans were severely undermined by the downturn and it will now aim to regroup and prove the doubters wrong. In the UK, Tesco has ground to reclaim from Sainsbury’s and Morrisons, both of whom made progress during 2009.

Hopes that this will take place in the midst of a resurgent consumer economy may be over-optimistic. Notwithstanding the improving conditions seen in the second part of 2009, we can expect a period of relative austerity in 2010, particularly in the UK and the US.

There is a worry that the fragile recovery seen in the second half of 2009, built to a significant degree on fiscal stimulus measures, will run out of steam. Consumer confidence may be returning but as governments look to recoup the money spent keeping economies afloat in late 2008 and 2009 with public spending cuts in 2010, any recovery will be characterised by a very gradual rise in consumer confidence with no suggestion of a quick ‘bounce back’.

On the plus side, there is relative stability, particularly in the banking sector where the problems began. Aside from worries over commodity prices, inflationary pressures are largely absent while interest rates also remain low.

With sustainability an ever-present issue in 2009, it seemed appropriate that the year closed with environmental matters centre stage thanks to the Copenhagen conference, albeit ending in disappointment.

A racing certainty for the coming year, whether despite or because of what happened in Copenhagen, is that sustainability will continue to be much discussed. Companies are under ever-mounting pressure, both from campaigners and consumers, but are increasingly competing with one another on sustainability issues, leading to accusations of ‘greenwashing’ from campaigners.

This not only manifests itself in companies improving their environmental profiles – areas such as palm oil, soy and sustainable fishing will be ones to watch in 2010. Over the last year, we have seen further development of the Fairtrade market, notably with the high-profile entry of Cadbury Dairy Milk and latterly Nestlé’s decision to relaunch Kit Kat as a Fairtrade product. As companies seek to outdo each other in the ethical stakes we can expect more of these types of initiatives in 2010. But campaigners are growing wary of such moves.

Three effects can be anticipated. The overall benefit gained from such moves will dissipate as more companies go along the same route and, as more companies designate some part of their business as Fairtrade, campaigners will apply greater scrutiny to their core activities, suspicious of greenwashing.

Thirdly, some ethical consumers are concerned at the Fairtrade movement’s preparedness to welcome in big business. Unless certification schemes can show clearly that they are not being exploited, that scepticism will increase.

One hotly debated agricultural issue that faded somewhat from view in 2009 was GM. As the debates over climate change, sustainable agriculture and food security converge, the likelihood is that GM will become a far more prominent subject again over the coming year or so.

As the sustainability debate progresses, major retailers will continue to face criticism from environmental NGOs that the pressure they place on suppliers only encourages greater intensification and militates against more sustainable production.

The debate over whether the new supermarket Code of Practice in the UK should be overseen by an ombudsman will rumble on. With the Conservatives expected to win the election this year, attention will focus on their rather schizophrenic view on the matter.

The Conservatives are also known to be eyeing reform of the Food Standards Agency (FSA), though this is unlikely to be an immediate priority. As the FSA’s European counterpart, the European Food Standards Authority (EFSA), continues its evaluation of health claims in 2010, the issue of how the plethora of putative ‘better-for-you’ products are marketed will only intensify.

With concern that the recession has set back anti-obesity drives, public health organisations will be looking for governments and food companies to refocus on this issue during the coming year, and not just in the UK.

The last year has seen the ‘Obama’ factor already much in evidence in the US food sector. President Obama may have been accused of lacking resolve in Copenhagen but there seems to be no faint-heartedness when it comes to taking on the issues of childhood obesity and food safety.

Last year saw Obama appointees at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) address the thorny issue of front-of-pack (FOP) labelling, taking self-regulation in this area to task in the process. Next year is likely to see far greater scrutiny of self-regulation in food advertising, particularly in relation to children, even if regulatory intervention remains a distant threat at this stage.

Overall, looking ahead to 2010, one is left with the abiding thought that if recession and despond can result in a generally rather eventful 12 months, improving economies and reviving consumer markets should allow for an equally if not more stimulating year.

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