Jonathan Straight, founder and former chief executive of Straight plc, now a writer and presenter at planetstraight.tv and an ambassador for RWM in Partnership With CIWM, says that the food we waste at home is just the tip of the food waste iceberg
In March 2007, along with the great and the good of the recycling industry, I attended a presentation in Westminster given by WRAP, the agency charged with increasing recycling rates in the UK. Its research had discovered that something like one-third of all food purchased by members of the public was being thrown away and that much of that food was perfectly good to eat.
WRAP introduced a number of initiatives including its Love Food Hate Waste campaign, but also worked with retailers on innovations such as more convenient pack sizes, extended shelf life, better labelling and so on. A significant reduction in food waste has been achieved from nearly 9 million tonnes per year to 7 million tonnes now. This is still a vast amount of food waste which according to WRAP costs us a staggering £12.5 billion per year.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg. In 2013, the Institute of Mechanical Engineers reported that almost half of all food produced never reached a plate. Some of this was the consumer element described above and some is crops never harvested due to them not meeting retailers’ exacting requirements. Some action has been taken in this respect and again, things are slowly improving.
Tesco recently announced that it would give its unsold food to charity. Make no mistake, this is a great idea and the Courtauld Commitment which the major supermarkets have signed up to, targets a reduction in food waste from stores of 20% by 2025. More progress still but this fails to address the wasted food within the supply chain, food that has never actually reached the store.
In many ways, this is a sticking plaster treating the symptom without dealing with the underlying cause. There is a considerable volume of food within the supply chain which is branded with supermarket own labels or other major brands, but for a variety of reasons including overruns, last minute cancellation of order or poor sales forecasting never actually makes it to the shelves and as such ends up in limbo.
Such goods might find a way to AD, but more likely most of it will simply be landfilled and that is an unacceptable waste.
There are businesses like Approved Foods in Sheffield which acquire foodstuffs that are short dated or the result of overruns and then sells them at a significant discount to standard retail prices.
The key to reducing this huge amount of waste in the supply chain is confidence building between producers and resellers who need to offer positive and auditable ways of dealing with branded products that are outside of their controlled market area. There is great scope for innovation here and some of this is happening already.
The result is a win-win situation where manufacturers find an outlet for food without a home, retailers do not have large volumes of food with their brand on going to landfill along with the associated PR risk and consumers who are cash-strapped can get a great deal.
Whether the industry can sort itself out or whether some legislation will be required (as proposed in Italy where donors of food will be incentivised) will play out in the coming months and years ahead. It remains that on a daily basis perfectly good food is going to landfill and any reasonable society where some people are hungry has to act to stop this happening.