How crummy are they?
Josie Wexler examines the UK’s biscuit companies.
Workers’ rights are one of the big ethical issues in the biscuit sector – from slavery in the cocoa supply chain, to workers’ disputes in the UK. Over the past few years, there have been strikes at British factories belonging to nearly all of the big biscuit companies.
In this guide we examine the track record of the UK’s biggest biscuit companies, and some of the small, niche brands too. We also look at some of the health issues around biscuits.
Chocolate biscuits and slavery
We have reported before on the child labour and child slavery that is still endemic in West African cocoa farming (see Chocolate Bars). STOP THE TRAFFIK’s recommendation is that all cocoa should be certified through an independent body such as Fairtrade, UTZ or Rainforest Alliance, whose standards prohibit slavery, trafficking and child labour.
Only one of the biscuit companies that we looked at has all of its cocoa fully certified by one of these bodies, and that is Traidcraft. However, several of the other small niche companies (Biona, Duchy Originals, Against the Grain and Island Bakery Organics) use cocoa that is certified as organic, which does in theory provide some protection for workers. The Soil Association standards state: “you must not use forced or involuntary labour or child labour that interferes with their education”. None of the big biscuit companies have certification covering all the cocoa they use, although some have a few certified product lines.
Palm oil policies & scoring
The good news is that almost all of the biscuit companies we looked at either don’t use palm oil (Island Bakery) or use 100% certified oil, with the exception of ASDA and Morrisons. Burton’s Biscuit Company, Nairns and Hill Biscuits go further and use 100% segregated oil.
Palm oil scores
|Against the Grain
|Duchy Originals, Waitrose
|Two Sisters/Fox's biscuits
Key: Scored out of 20
A bucketful of sugar
When it comes to sugar, the biscuit companies’ influence may go beyond tempting us with tasty treats. Mondelez and United Biscuits are both part of the Committee of European Users of Sugar which recently successfully lobbied to get the EU sugar beet quotas removed so that they could buy cheaper sugar. Given that sugar is currently public health enemy number one, it is not clear that cheaper sugar is really in the public interest. But even more urgently, the removal of the sugar beet quotas threatens the livelihoods of many sugar cane producers in the poorest countries in the world.
...and more than a grain of salt
Another health issue that may come as a surprise is the issue of salt in biscuits. The Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) did a study in 2013 and found alarming amounts of salt in a lot of brands. They claim that overall, biscuits and other bakery treats are one of the top ten sources of salt in the UK diet. The issue is especially worrying with regard to children, as on average children eat as many biscuits as adults, and their advised salt intake is much lower.
Not all biscuits are stuffed with salt. CASH found a huge variation across both brands and varieties, with some containing practically none at all. Companies do not always make it easy to work out how much salt you are eating. Some only list nutritional information per 100g, making it harder to work out how much salt there is in each biscuit.
The 2 Sisters Food Group is the company behind Fox’s biscuits. It is the third largest UK food company and also makes several other well-known food brands including Goodfella’s pizza and “Donegal Catch” fish, but the bulk of its business is supplying chicken to supermarkets. It is owned by British tycoon Ranjit Singh Boparan, known as ‘The Chicken King’ who grew the company from conception and now has an estimated personal fortune of £190 million.
2 Sisters does not have a great name in the workers’ rights arena. One particularly noteworthy dispute was in 2012 when it made 350 staff at its Leicester factory redundant and shifted production to Nottingham instead. The company spokesman Andrew Hanson told the BBC that the move was the “result of several recent strikes”. The Nottingham plant then proceeded to take on 100 unpaid Workfare placements to do the work instead of employing paid staff. Some workers’ rights groups started to call the company the “Twisted Sisters”.
2 Sisters has also been harshly criticised for the way that it treats its suppliers. In 2014 BBC Newsnight investigated the company, uncovering a letter which suggested that suppliers could wait over four months for payment. The EU late payment directive specifies that companies should settle bills within 60 days.
Burton’s Biscuit Company is the company which makes Maryland cookies and Lyon’s biscuits. It also makes Jammie Dodgers and Wagon Wheels, and has an agreement with Cadbury (Mondelez) to make Cadbury’s biscuits, including chocolate fingers.
Burton’s was bought by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board in 2013. Providing pensions for Canadian teachers may sound benign, but Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan has investments in hundreds of companies, amongst them weapons manufacturers (BAE Systems) and fossil fuel companies (ExxonMobil). It also invests in the legendarily immoral tobacco company Philip Morris, which for decades funded a huge misinformation campaign denying the health risks of smoking.
Philip Morris is now suing Uruguay for increasing the size of health warnings on cigarette packs, and suing the Australian government over its plain packaging legislation. It has just filed a lawsuit in the UK over the government’s plan to introduce plain packaging in 2016.
These investments have fixed Burton’s firmly at the bottom of our ranking table.
Mondelez is the enormous American confectionery company that used to be called Kraft Foods, but changed its name in 2012. It owns many of the chocolate brands in most shops, including Cadbury, Milka, Mikado and Green & Blacks. In the world of biscuits, its main offering is Oreos.
Mondelez was the subject of a lot of discontent in 2013 for suppressing union rights in Egypt and Tunisia, undermining hard-won advances during the Arab Spring uprisings. Five union executive members were suspended from their jobs in July 2012, but after an international campaign, including solidarity actions at Mondelez factories in Britain, they were reinstated.
Mondelez’s directors are the highest paid of any of the brands we looked at: in 2014 Mondelez’s highest paid director received $21 million, up from $13 million the year before.
The company also has high risk company subsidiaries in tax havens and is heavily involved with political lobbying. It gave $69,000 (equivalent to about £44,000) to US political candidates in 2013-2014; 45% to Democratic candidates, and 55% to Republicans. It is a member of the World Economic Forum, a lobby group campaigning for free market reforms and deregulation.
Mondelez was censured by the Advertising Standards Agency in 2014 for sneakily paying video bloggers (“vloggers” to their friends) to compete in – no doubt hilarious – “Oreo Lick Races” without making it clear that they were being paid by the company to advertise the biscuits.
Windmill Organics is a company based in Surrey, responsible for the biscuit brand Biona. It uses palm oil but sources it from Colombia, Brazil and Thailand rather than from Indonesia or Malaysia, and the company told us that it is all organic and RSPO certified.
Dove’s Farm is an organic flour specialist based on the Wiltshire border. It also uses palm oil sourced from organic suppliers in Colombia. The company say that it is fully traceable and sustainably grown.
Island Bakery is a small company located on the Isle of Mull that started off as the local bakery. All of its products are organic and contain no palm oil.
Island Bakery also makes Against the Grain’s biscuits, which are all vegan and organic.
Traidcraft, pioneer in the fair trade movement for over 35 years, began using fair trade palm oil in 2014. It calls it Fairpalm, and it is now in its cookies and a range of cleaning products. Traidcraft worked with Dr Bronners (a US soap company) and smallholders in central Ghana to develop the standards. It is certified organic and ‘Fair For Life’ by the Institute of Marketecology (IMO).
United Biscuits makes McVitie’s and Crawfords biscuits, as well as Go Ahead! snacks and Jacob’s crackers. It is a British company, but after being owned by financial investors and private equity firms from 2000 to 2014, it has now been sold to a Turkish food company called Yildiz Holdings.
United Biscuits has high-risk subsidiaries in tax havens. This meant that it lost marks in our Anti-Social Finance category, as did the fact that its director was paid £1.4 million in 2013.
In common with most of the other big biscuit manufacturers, United Biscuits has been involved in disputes with its workers over the past few years. One of the most recent strikes was at the Jacob’s crackers factory in Liverpool, over the company scrapping sick pay.
2. Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, http://www.rspo.org/
3. Barbara Crowther, EU sugar reform potentially disastrous for sugar cane farmers, published in The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/fairtrade-partner-zone/2015/feb/25/eu-sugar-reform-potentially-disastrous-for-sugar-cane-farmers; The Committee of European Users of Sugar list of members http://www.cius.org/who-s-who
6. BBC News, RF Brookes factory in South Wigston cuts jobs, 18 July 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leicestershire-18887436
10. Tobacco Documents http://archive.tobacco.org/Documents/documents.html
11. Big Tobacco puts countries on trial as concerns over TTIP deals mount, The Independent, 21 October 2014
12. Tobacco companies file lawsuits against UK Government over plain packaging laws, The Independent, 22 May 2015
14. IUF and Mondelez International welcome the settlement of the Alexandria Egypt dispute, August 05, 2014 http://business-humanrights.org/en/egypt-five-cadbury-workers-face-dismissal-for-allegedly-inciting-labour-strike