Food waste campaigners call for transparency to hold supermarkets to account

Supermarkets must be more transparent about how much food they waste if we’re to make inroads on the eight million tonnes of food that goes to waste every year in the UK, say campaigners Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Tristram Stuart .  

Food waste campaigners call for transparency to hold supermarkets to account
Celebrity chef and waste campaigner Fearnley-Whittingstall, and food waste activist Stuart, founder of the food waste charity Feedback, made the assertion while giving evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee yesterday (15 November), discussing the impact of food waste in England, measures to reduce this waste, and the need for new legislation.

The pair were giving evidence at the first oral session of EFRA’s inquiry into the economic, social, and environmental impact of food waste in England, which is expected to hear from supermarkets themselves at a later date.

Around 60 per cent of the eight million tonnes of food wasted post-manufacture in the UK, including from households, retail and wholesale and the hospitality/food sector, could be avoided, amounting to an annual value of approximately £16 billion a year.

The two campaigners suggested a range of policies that could help the government reduce these figures, including new national targets, better labelling and an independent ombudsman to oversee supermarkets dealings with suppliers.

Fearnley-Whittingstall and Stuart both insisted that household waste was only part of the UK’s food waste problem, saying that supermarkets need to be held to account. “No one has ever looked at the waste industry in a transparent way. We rely on their self-generated data”, said Stuart. “No one includes the waste of fish at sea, the waste generated in production overseas, the waste in the supply chain. Supermarkets are in a position of power – more than any other individual stakeholder, they can impact food waste.”

Fearnley-Whittingstall suggested that our food waste is deeply affected by supermarkets: “Retailers are complicit in food waste because of the way they sell food through advertising, through overselling, through the lack of information available to consumers.” The overarching problem, he said, is one of considerable and deliberate over-supply: “Over-supply allows a culture of trading off one supplier against another. Over-supply occurs at every stage, leading to excess in the warehouse, excess at the back of store, excess at the farm left rotting in a pile.”

A mode of action, both men suggested, is for supermarkets to measure, and make public, their food waste data: “Transparency is the only way that other policy elements whether mandatory or voluntary can be properly assessed. We need transparency across the board in all areas with which supermarkets are complicit in wasting food.”

Dave Lewis, the CEO of Tesco, recently called for more companies to make their food waste figures public, following the revelations that the supermarket disposed of the equivalent of more than 119 million meals as food waste last year. Tesco had been the only supermarket to publish its waste figures for several years until Sainsbury’s did so in September.

Fearnley-Whittingstall went on to suggest the government needs to make a decisive move: “Some part of the government has to own this problem in a more visible way. They need to work towards mandatory transparency, so much flows from that and makes it possible for both government and commentators to hold the food industry to account. With the right kind of action, we would see change.”

Stuart called for mandatory waste targets: “I would like it to be legally binding – a national target across the supply chains. I think we need mandatory reporting of food waste by supermarkets, covering their own business and ultimately their supply chains.”

‘A world where farmers put food crops straight into aerobic digestion facilities’

Among the other elements perpetuating the food waste problem, Fearnley-Whittingstall highlighted the problem of sending food that is fit for human or animal consumption to anaerobic digestion (AD): “It is not an appropriate end-use for food that is still good to use and is a very inefficient use of energy recovery”, he said. “It recovers very little of its total energy potential. This is now a world where farmers, in order to deal with the problem of over-supply, are putting food straight from the field into anaerobic digestion facilities.”

Stuart elaborated on this point: “There are economic incentives for anaerobic digestion, because it produces energy and gets rid of waste. This was done to meet our landfill directive targets and is great where AD is using waste that would have otherwise been incinerated or taken to landfill. But now it is more economically attractive to use it for AD rather than redistributing to charity. We need to exclude the use of food crops in AD.”

Food waste campaigners call for transparency to hold supermarkets to account
The EFRA Committee examines the administration and policy of Defra and its associated public bodies
Stuart suggested food redistribution legislation, along the lines of that passed in France earlier this year: “A policy is needed to say you only get a permit to operate if you have a relationship with a local charity to redistribute surplus food.”

The food waste campaigners also addressed the issue of food mislabelling. “The use-by date is being presented as the best-before date and this is mis-selling to customers. There is a strong case to get rid of the best-before date – a lot of foods are carrying use-by dates that don’t by law need them. We need to be communicating clearly to food redistribution organisations that post-best-before foods can often be sold.”

‘An arms-race in pursuit of cosmetic perfection’

Following up on one of the main topics of Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Hugh’s War on Waste BBC series, the two also addressed the overbearing cosmetic standards enforced on producers by supermarkets. Stuart said that supermarkets are abusing these standards for fruit and vegetables to cancel orders when demand affects cost and suggested the appointment of an ombudsman to govern a ‘groceries code’ as a possible solution.

Fearnley-Whittingstall added: “Historically, supermarkets have a lot to answer for. What we have seen is an arms race in pursuit of cosmetic perfection that is irrelevant to how these things will cook or taste. They will go to war with their rivals wherever they feel they can gain a competitive advantage.

“I have called for supermarkets to use their clout to find a market for fruit and veg that are perfectly edible. Normalisation of misshapen products would reduce waste and eliminate this cynical practise of cosmetic excuses. Start by selling less perfect vegetables and bring customers with you on that journey.”

A number of retailers have introduced ‘wonky’ fruit and veg ranges in the last few years, but, writing for Resource earlier this year, farming industry insider Mark Palmer suggested that such lines are causing farmers more harm than good.

The video of Fearnley-Whittingstall and Stuart speaking to the EFRA Committee is available at the site.



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