Birdseye Fish fingers are iconic in the UK, having been on the market for over 60 years. I was therefore really excited to see that Birdseye had launched a vegan alternative in June 2021 that already have +4 star consumer reviews, and was intrigued to look into their sustainability. Green Cuisine had over 831,000 users in Britain in 2020. What I really like about this product is that these new fish-less fingers are actually cheaper than the original Birdseyes classic Cod Fish Fingers. While the cost of 10 x 28g classic Cod Fish fingers varies from £3.00 in Tesco, £3.60 in Asda and £4.00 in Sainsburys, 12 x 28g Green Cuisine Fish-less fingers are £2.50 in Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Asda. So rather than exploiting sustainably minded consumers for buying plant based products by charging them more money, as so many companies do, Birdseye have followed up on their marketed intention of making plant based food more ‘accessible and convenient’ and actually made the plant-based option cheaper, and therefore more appealing to the consumer. The company are also taking a number of ongoing steps to improve their sustainability, with highly detailed information regarding their overall sustainability available on their website. More transparency on specific products, suppliers, locations and supply chains would further improve their rating.
These are a vegan product which is great as overfishing is having a drastic impact on the ocean, our largest carbon sink. Cod is a particularly unsustainable species as it is heavily overfished but is the main ingredient of many classic fish fingers. For Birdseye, fish fingers are some of their best selling products, as over 66% of Britons voted Birdseye the best fish fingers on the market and 88% associate Fish Fingers with the Birds Eye brand. Producing a vegan alternative of such a classic product is a great way to promote plant-based eating through a trusted and highly visible brand. Its ingredients are: Textured Rice Flake (40%), Water, Rapeseed Oil, Potato Starch, Natural Flavouring, Salt, Spices, Yeast, WHEAT Fibre, WHEAT Gluten. WHEAT Flour. Rice can be highly variable in its sustainability and mostly depends on where the rice is grown, but can use a lot of land and water to grow, lead to soil erosion and produce a lot of methane among other greenhouse gases. Wheat can also be associated with soil erosion and chemical water pollution where pesticides/fertilisers are used in the production process. Potatoes can be a relatively sustainable crop with low water usage and high efficiency per sq metre of land and high nutrition for a high yield crop, though can be associated with higher pesticide use than any other produce. More detail on the production process would provide clarity on the sustainability of the ingredients Birds eye use, as they don’t even identify which country they are sourced from. I was however impressed by how recognisable and natural the ingredients in the list are, which is great for consumers to understand what they are eating and for consumer health, with the omission of artificial colours, flavours or preservatives. I also like that the rice protein that makes up the ‘fish substitute’ is coated in the same breadcrumb mix as the classic product, meaning that the product can offer a similar and familiar taste experience just in a more sustainable form. Nutritionally, they are also relatively similar to Birdseye classic Cod fish fingers though marginally higher in calories (260 v. 210) and fats (13kg v 9kg). They also however have only slightly lower protein content (8kg v 12kg), which is pretty high for a plant-based product and significantly higher fibre than the classic fish fingers (2kg v 0.8kg). The Green Cuisine Fish-Less fingers are also a source of omega 3 which supports normal functioning of the heart.
The packaging is solely a recyclable cardboard box, which is great as it is very minimal, minimising waste and is easy for the consumer to dispose of sustainably.
There is no detail for how their Green Cuisine Fish-less fingers are specifically made though there is detail of their overall operations in their sustainability report. While their overall production processes appear to be sustainable more transparency on specifics such as the names or locations of their suppliers and factories would be better, and as such I can’t give details on how fish-less fingers are actually made !
Birdseye aim to source 100% of their vegetables, potatoes, fruit and fresh herbs through sustainable farming practices by the end of 2025. They joined the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform (SAI Platform) in 2018 and use the Farm Sustainability Assessment (FSA) on the platform to measure their progress towards this target, which requires suppliers to be verified either through a benchmarked assurance scheme or an independent FSA verification audit. In 2021, 88% were sourced from sustainable farming practices, an 11% increase from 2020. Over half of their vegetable/fruit raw ingredients are sourced from farmers with whom they have a direct relationship and a long-term contract, with the rest sourced from trusted third-party suppliers. They are also committed to the “responsible use of pesticides and fertilisers”, though limiting this to no pesticides or fertilisers would be an improvement. This is a good start but more could be done.
They flash freeze their food to avoid the use of preservatives. Frozen food has benefits in terms of sustainability, food waste, convenience and nutrition. As frozen food can be stored for months, it is not only convenient, but can reduce food waste by 6 times that of wasted fresh food. It can also be more accessible than fresh food depending on income and proximity to urban areas.The energy required to freeze and transport food needs to be carefully optimized through supply chain analysis to limit the emissions impact of frozen food on the environment. However Birdseye’s website is rather vague surrounding this optimization with a two line section at the end of a page describing “How frozen food can help the planet”, that says “Slower transport means lower emissions” and that they use freight vessels rather than air transport to lessen environmental impact. Given the detail available in their environmental impact report about their overall company emissions, giving some more detail here to support their claim that their frozen food is sustainable would be more convincing.
BirdsEye say “our brands have some of the lowest food waste percentages across the food industry” with “fractions of avoidable food waste which we constantly aim to reduce” and unavoidable food waste such as potato peelings, leaves, pea pods or cabbage stems. According to their 2021 sustainability report they have reduced avoidable food waste by 32% since 2015. Also, any waste is sent to become animal food “where possible”, or if not “typically” gets turned into natural fertilisers and/or renewable energy. It is great they provide this information though clearer commitments than “typically” would provide more reassurance of their commitment to minimising food waste.
The Green Cuisine range since its launch around 4 years ago is now worth £19 million and has become the number three frozen plant-based brand in Britain. It makes reducing fish/meat intake more accessible, convenient and mainstream as the Birds Eye brand is one that the average consumer recognises and trusts for certain products (i.e. fish fingers, chicken dippers, potato waffles, frozen vegetables). Only 60% of their customers are vegetarians/vegans which is a lower proportion than most of their rival plant-based brands/ranges. In 2021, more than two million new households across Europe tried green cuisine and the Green Cuisine Chicken-Free Dippers were voted Product of the Year in the Free-From category of the UK Consumer Survey of Product Innovation. This is a large contribution to bringing flexitarian/mainstream consumers into the plant-based market and into incorporating plant-based products into their diets. It is also marketed as climate change action so these consumers, new to plant-based products, are also becoming informed on environmentally positive reasons for consuming such products in the process. Their website also says “In the future, we will launch more plant-based and vegetarian options, helping our consumers to expand their meat-free repertoire and eat a more delicious and varied diet full of plant foods”.
BirdsEye is part of Nomad Foods. The most impressive aspect around their sustainability is the amount of detail on their website, with clear measurable goals, aligned with the UN’s sustainable development goals, and 5 years of annual sustainability reports that measure the extent to which they are reaching those goals and the actions they have tangibly taken to reach them, even acknowledging when they are “behind” on a goal, though for most they are on target or even ahead. Being transparent and holding themselves accountable to consumers in this way is really good and unfortunately stands out from so many other companies of their size.
The BirdsEye website outlines Nomad Foods external accreditations from the Marine Stewardship Council (sustainable fishing), Aquaculture Stewardship Council (responsible aquaculture) and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (sustainable oil palm products). These have been criticised for the extent to which they actually confirm sustainability and Birdseye are perhaps a little over reliant on these as absolute confirmations of sustainable sourcing.
They are however part of a number of other really positive initiatives/commitments:
The UK Peas Please Initiative to improve British veg intake,
The UK WRAP Courtauld Commitment 2025 to reduce food waste by 20% since 2015
The UK Plastic Pact that 100% of plastic packaging is reused, effectively recycled or composted by 2025.
91.4% of their consumer packaging is currently recyclable, with an aim for 100% by the end of 2022, and in 2021 they made all their resealable frozen vegetable bags recyclable using a new patented sealing technology. Their other veg bags must be recycled in large supermarkets along with other food and carrier bags, which does increase the offset of responsibility for their sustainable disposal onto the consumer. Though these steps rely on the consumer to recycle, Birdseye have also optimised their packaging sizes to remove any excess materials by approximately 7% which is equivalent to 28 tonnes of packaging removed per annum. They have also removed all aluminium trays and reduced box sizes which has removed 35 tonnes of packaging per annum. It is unclear whether these are two separate figures of packaging removed (28 tonnes and 35 tonnes) or different facets of the same figure, but either way these changes are really positive and tangible steps to improving the sustainability of their products, that don’t only rely on the consumer to reduce/recycle waste. It would be great if they could use cardboard for all of their products, if this is possible.
In 2021 they also transitioned to 100% renewable electricity across all their manufacturing
sites. They initially set a net zero before 2050 goal in 2020, which calls for progress that would be far too slow. They have since committed to reducing their emissions by 45% by 2025 to speed this up and in 2021, they reduced their absolute operational emissions by 14.1%, producing an absolute carbon footprint of 290.02 kilotons CO2e. Speeding up this process would of course be a huge improvement.
In terms of workers Birdseye say they base their policy on the International Labour Organisation’s principles, adhere to national labour regulations and require their suppliers to sign the Nomad Foods Europe’s Supplier Code of Conduct. They are registered with SEDEX (the Supplier Ethical Data Exchange) who are a not-for-profit that support businesses to more ethically audit their global supply chains, though what this really means for a company’s ethics is debatable.
They have also joined Valuable 500, which supports global disability inclusion in business and launched their first company-wide Diversity and Inclusion Policy in 2018. They have established a Women in Nomad Network in our Head Office and “will be rolling this out internationally”. They have also recently recruited a new Group Health and Safety Manager to update their Occupational Health and Safety Policy and launched “Our Well Way”, their own Health and Wellness programme to support their employees ‘physical, mental and financial wellbeing’. Finally they say that they ‘avoid top-down, ‘one-size-fits-all’ initiatives’ and allow local teams to decide how to best support their region because ‘locals know best’. This sounds great, though would be rather vague if they hadn’t given a few examples:
“Teams in the UK, Sweden, Austria, and The Netherlands are working closely with local food banks or charities to reduce the amount of food that would otherwise be wasted, to be used in a safe way for less fortunate people. In the UK, our biggest partner is FareShare who redistributes surplus food to charities who then turn it into meals.”
“Responsible Society: The team in the Netherlands has created a ‘Responsible Society’ strategy with the key focus on education about obesity issues. Their commitment ranges from healthy cooking workshops for children in areas of social deprivation to taking part in sponsored runs for charities.”
Compared to most companies of their size Birdseye are clearly taking action to improve their sustainability and offering affordable plant-based alternatives that consumers want to buy, even those who aren’t vegan/vegetarian. Their transparency in providing an annual environmental impact report is also really positive. More specific detail on their supply chains for each product would however improve their rating as I’m unsure how or where this product is made. Faster progress on reaching net-zero among other goals would also improve their company sustainability.