It’s almost unfathomable how, when food poverty is so rife, the UK manages to waste enough food every year to fill up nine Wembley stadiums – but this is sadly the case. Although a number of new initiatives and voluntary agreements such as Courtauld 2025 are steadily tackling this issue, The London Produce Show and Conference 2016’s food waste discussions highlight how the food sector could be doing much more to help the cause
Food waste warriors
Waste Knot, connects those in the food chain who have surplus stock with the people who are in the greatest need of sustenance. And, as founder Jess Latchford points out, there are many people in need of food. She explains that more than 2 million people in the UK are estimated to be malnourished whilst 500,000 people are reliant on food parcels. However, only 710,000 tonnes of the UK’s 10mt of surplus food goes to charity or is used as animal feed. Happily, the situation – both in the UK and abroad – is gradually improving thanks to the efforts of an increasing number of food-waste warriors. Latchford says: “All across the globe there are those who have stepped up to the plate and taken a bite out of the knobbly pear, a bruised banana or an ageing lemon, and vowed to make a difference in the fight against food waste.” These include organisations of all shapes and sizes – from start-up firms in Feedback’s Food Surplus Entrepreneurs (FSE) Network to those large retailers who have launched helpful initiatives such as Tesco’s Community Food Connection Programme with Fare Share and Food Cloud, Asda’s wonky veg boxes and Sainsbury’s ‘Food Rescue’ app. Yet Latchford asserts that further changes – which fresh produce buyers can arguably help to instigate – must occur in order for the fight against food waste to continue.
Revaluing food and revaluing people
Latchford says that, as consumers accustomed to a culture of feasting, we need to increase our awareness of the food waste issue. This includes learning not to be seduced by supermarket buy-one-get-one-free offers or phased by produce that looks imperfect. She says: “Throwing away tonnes and tonnes of produce because our eyes were bigger than our stomachs on that day that they were bought is criminal. We need to up our game and keep on upping it.”
Second, she explains that we need to continue to develop engaging campaigns such as Hugh’s War on Waste and Feedback’s The Pig Idea to make sure that food waste “stays at the forefront of our minds.” “While we are at it, we need to try and get more and more big names on board to shout the message from the rooftops.”
Third, Latchford highlights the need to ensure that the final destinations for rescued produce are the right destinations – namely those charities that are helping to feed people in need. “That’s what drives us as Waste Knot – the colossal amount of waste, and the injustice of people going hungry night after night. The bottom line is that we need to revalue food and revalue people. The more respect we have for both the better place the world will be.”
But Latchford highlights that unfortunately it’s still cheaper for food businesses to send their unwanted food to anaerobic digestion (AD) plants or for use as animal feed than it is for them to direct it to charity. She declares: “The government needs to work with businesses, charities, farmers, and manufacturers – and all those up and down the [food] supply chain to make sure this problem is tackled head on, with everyone on board.”
Bowman from Feedback, which runs the Gleaning Network whereby surplus fresh produce crops that would otherwise go to waste are harvested by volunteers and distributed to charities, agrees. He reveals that: “The UK has really championed AD as a solution for food waste; however, it becomes a problem if it’s directing food waste from higher in the hierarchy. Also, if you build an AD plant that needs to be filled on a regular basis it dis-incentivises reducing food waste in the first place.”
He explains that Feedback, which over the last few years has saved more than 2m portions of fruit and vegetables from going to waste, has developed a Food Waste Pyramid. This pyramid suggests that food waste should firstly be reduced, then anything that is not required should go to people in need – then thirdly it should go to livestock and, fourthly, it should be used as compost or renewable energy. As a last resort, it should go to landfill.
A cultural shift
Aside from produce not meeting the required cosmetic specifications, Bowman says that farmers have admitted that fresh produce gets thrown away because they have over-produced. He says: “They fear undersupplying their buyers – particularly the large supermarkets. Unfortunately, [this means that] they are sometimes required to plough whole crops back into the ground.” Bowman notes that, whilst the introduction of the Groceries Supply Code of Practice is arguably helping to improve the relationship between suppliers and buyers, there are other “food waste solutions” that could be implemented.
These include more collaborative forecasting and whole crop purchasing (WCP); when buyers and manufacturers commit to purchasing a producer’s entire crop and simply incorporate any below-saleable quality food to other parts of the supply chain. “WRAP is advocating this as a way of sharing risk across the supply chain.” Bowman also notes that an example of WCP has been when Tesco has purchased the entire banana supply from Costa Rica. “So however much of a glut there is, it all gets bought,” he enthuses.
Professor Brad Rickard of Cornell University presents his research findings
Meanwhile Dr Brad Rickard, a professor at Cornell University in New York, suggests that, once food products reach the supermarket aisles, the way in which date labels are worded “affects consumer perception of a product’s quality and safety, thus contributing to avoidable consumer and household food waste.”
The university led an experiment that assessed and compared people’s reaction to the phrases “use by,” “fresh by” and “sell by.” Revealing the results, Rickard says: “On average, across all of the product types, if a product was introduced to you with a date label that said ‘use by’ you would throw away on average 60 cents per item. With ‘fresh buy’ or ‘best buy’ it drops to 40 cents [and with] ‘sell by’ it drops to 30 cents. This suggests that consumers are more responsive (waste more) when date labels focus more clearly on food safety signals.”
He notes that this was particularly true for the salad category (cereal and yoghurt were also in the trial). “We are wasting 75 cents in the salad category.” He adds that, as the date on the label becomes closer to the date of purchase, the amount/cost of discarded food goes up. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the study also found that smaller food packages generated less food waste. Evidently, there are steps that can be taken in every part of the food chain to help reduce waste – and fresh produce buyers will note that a change of approach can start to make a big difference.