Both Ajinomoto and Meiji were amongst the world’s Top 25 food and beverage companies analysed by the Access to Nutrition Initiative (ATNI) in the latest Global Access to Nutrition Index 2021.
This assessed key pillars such as nutrition strategy, reformulation and fortification, healthy product accessibility and affordability, labelling and nutritional health claims, and more.
Meiji ranked twelfth this year, leaping by five spots after a large leap in scoring from 0.8 in the previous 2018 index to 3.1 this year, whereas Ajinomoto ranked fourteenth after improving from a score of 2.4 in 2018 to 3.0 this year. The average overall score was 3.6.
According to ATNI Executive Director Inge Kauer, the fact that both firms saw positive growth in scores was encouraging for Japan as globally most of the firms in the top 10 spots actually saw a drop in scoring between 2018 and 2021.
“What this shows is that some of these big firms are stagnating in their scores – this could be because the methodology has changed somewhat to suit current needs, but is still a concerning development,” she said at an exclusive Global Index 2021 event focusing on Japan.
“These include top-ranking firm Nestle which dropped from 6.8 in 2018 to 6.7 this year, second-placed Unilever dropping from 6.7 to 6.3, and third-placed FrieslandCampina from 6.0 to 5.9, as well as Danone, which has dropped from third to fourth place after a drop in scoring from 6.3 to 5.8.
“On that note, we are glad to see companies at the medium-ranking spots seeing improved scores, which is encouraging, and are exceptionally happy to see that this was so for [all the major Japanese F&B companies] in the report, but there is still room to improve.”
Speaking at the event, both Ajinomoto and Meiji expressed pride about the results, but both also stressed that for more significant progress to be made in Japan, what is needed moving forward is a more harmonized and collaborative approach between all industry stakeholders including the government.
“Meiji has been continuously working to improve the nutrition in our food range, but we are aware that this improvement is not yet sufficient [to solve all the malnutrition problems],” said Meiji Chief Sustainability Officer Jun Furuta.
“We are looking at international food standards and local Japanese food standards, and at present I still see a big gap to be addressed. The first step needed is a harmonisation of different standards, and to do this we call on the government to be part of this change.
“There are many markets with standards we should be looking at, such as the EU with Nutri-Score that even big global firms like Nestle and Danone are adopting, or in Australia/New Zealand where they have food standards [that many countries are following].
“In Japan, there are no doubt different regulatory challenges and expectations over governance and nutritional labelling – e.g. ATNI recommends FOP labelling, but this is not part of the regulations in Japan – and there are different laws in different regions currently too. So though we’re not suggesting everything exactly the same, there needs to be some level of harmonisation, both at a national and global level.”
Ajinomoto President Takaaki Nishii concurred, adding that every regional government is facing a unique set of challenges depending on the economy and demographics.
“After World War II, acute hunger in Japan due to poverty was the core of a lot of economic developments, and today regional governments are still in charge of identifying the challenges faced, including nutritional challenges, and have the means to measure the improvements or deteriorations of such parameters,” he said.
“A major challenge being faced here though is that consumer habits are hard to change – some 70% of people may know they have health issues but are unable or unwilling to change their eating habits. Here, a lot more education and raising of awareness is needed before any regulatory changes can be effectively implemented.
“The awareness of regional governments to the nutritional issues also needs to be raised, as well as initiatives to promote collaborations between regional and central governments, academics,, the food industry and other industry stakeholders to make a real difference.”
Kauer also agreed with this, adding ATNI insights from India which showed combined action between the government and private food industry players to introduce fortification in the local food supply had significantly sped up improvements in the industry based on the ATNI index within just three years.
In response to calls for government input, the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare’s (MHLW) Vice Minister for Health, Chief Medical and Global Health Officer Fukushima Yasumasa who also spoke at the event told the floor that the government was already planning an initiative along these lines.
“We know that Japan’s most major nutritional challenges in this era are excessive salt intake, excessive weight loss or thinness in young women, and nutritional inequalities depending on socioeconomic status,” he said.
“What the government is planning is a multi-partner collaboration involving the industry, academia, civil service, multiple government agencies including the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and other stakeholders.
“This will be a voluntary initiative to encourage food firms to promote nutritional and environmental advancement – participating firms will be required to provide action targets about the challenges they need to overcome, and as incentive, we will look at ways for them to increase ESG investment as well as the expansion of other business opportunities.”