WRAP report highlights need for further action to reduce household food waste

Climate NGO WRAP has released a report detailing the findings of its latest Retail Survey, showing that despite actions being taken on how food is labelled by retailers and brands to help people avoid food waste, more needs to be done to help curb the impact the UK’s food waste is having on climate change.

Food wasteIn association with the Food Standards Agency and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), WRAP has developed best practice guidance that if fully implemented could cut household food waste by at least 350,000 tonnes per year.

The report identifies the way products are packaged, labelled, sold and priced as crucial aspects to prevent food waste – focusing on the ‘most wasted’ items such as fruit and vegetables, meat, dairy and bread. WRAP sees ‘open life’ (‘best within x days of opening’), and advice on storage, freezing, defrosting and use as ‘important prompts’ to help people keep what they’ve bought in the best possible condition, and use as much of the food they buy as possible.

Findings from the survey, which took place between August 2021 to March 2022, were published today (16 November). WRAP conducted the survey to assess actions taken by eleven major UK retailers (Aldi, Asda, The Co-op, Iceland, Lidl, Marks and Spencer, Morrisons, Ocado, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose) towards the implementation of best practice guidelines. It examines the progress made by the retailers since its previous reports in 2009, 2011, 2015 and 2019.

Considering that ‘most food wasted in the UK is in our homes – with the average family throwing away around £700’ WRAP says that food retailers play an important role in helping their customers throw away less food. A method of ‘adopting good practice in the retail environment’ has the potential to assist consumers in buying the correct amount, keep what is bought at its best, and to use more of what they buy.

Although WRAP found retailers had made ‘excellent progress’ in areas including date labels on milk and yoghurt, the NGO urges that more work is needed to remove date labels from uncut fresh produce.

Key positive trends

Various ‘key positive trends’ were found in WRAP’s 2021 Survey snapshot, showing potential for the greatest reductions in food waste.

There has been a ‘noticeable increase” in yoghurt and milk with a ‘Best Before’ date instead of a ‘Use By’ date, WRAP says – in fact, it is the first time the NGO claims to have found milk with a best before date.

Further, in terms of open life (‘eat/use within x days of opening’) advice, which WRAP has previously recommended removing where possible, has been removed from some hard cheeses and extended or phrased ‘best within’ on some milk. This demonstrates an increased removal of one per cent in 2019 to 19 per cent in 2021/22.

WRAP also found an increase in products with no ‘open life’ across meats in general, offering people the chance to feel more confident in using or freezing them right up until their ‘use by‘ date – even after opening. However, most milks found had an ‘open life’ of only three days, and more yoghurts were found with open life statements in 2021 than before, so ‘this must be a focus going forward’.

In terms of general storage advice, which WRAP says ‘is very important to get right’ to help people keep food at its best, it ‘remains good in terms of where best to store items’, with a marked increase in advice promoting numerical fridge temperature settings, rising by ten per cent on 2019 levels to 41 per cent on relevant products.

According to WRAP, freezing and defrosting advice has also seen ‘many improvements’, with the increased use of the snowflake icon indicating freezing options on bread, meat, and poultry items. WRAP recorded a significant increase across the board on defrosting advice, from 27 per cent in 2019 to 67 per cent in 2021/22.

Areas for improvement

‘Key negative’ and no progress trends were also presented in the 2021 survey snapshot.

Although general storage advice remains good in terms of promoting numerical fridge temperature settings, WRAP found a reduction in the use of the ‘little blue fridge’ icon (which indicates items should be stored in the fridge below 5°C to extend their shelf life) across all categories except ready meals. This reduction was especially found on uncut fruit and vegetables.

WRAP says this icon is ‘crucial for fresh produce’ as it is an easy-to-see prompt to put products bought at ambient temperatures into the fridge. Separate research, published by WRAP earlier this year found that doing so can significantly prolong the life of many fresh produce items, with apples shown to stay fresh for more than two months longer in the fridge at the right temperature – compared to in a fruit bowl.

In 2019, WRAP called for the removal of consumer-facing date labels on most uncut fresh produce. However, the survey showed that the amount of produce without a date label decreased.

Moreover, the report identifies that ‘Display Until’ dates are still being found on uncut fresh produce and most (78 per cent) yoghurts still have a Use By date applied.

In response to these findings, and following WRAP’s 2022 report Reducing household food waste and plastic packaging, many of the UK’s largest retailers have begun removing ‘Best Before’ dates from uncut fresh produce in line with 2019 Best Practice Guidance.

‘Fighting food waste needs action from industry, government and consumers’

Catherine David, Director of Collaboration and Change at WRAP, said, “With cost-of-living and food prices rising, it’s never been more important to help people avoid costly food waste, which for many families can top £730 a year. How food is sold and labelled can have a huge influence in helping people better manage food at home. Excellent progress has been made in some areas while there is still lots of work to be done elsewhere.

“The last few years have been unprecedented for businesses, but it is crucial that we see more high-impact changes implemented. WRAP will continue to work with retailers to push these changes forward and will be conducting regular Retail Surveys to more closely monitor change.”

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow added: “The nation’s food waste has an enormous financial and environmental impact – costing the average family more than £700 a year> All the food thrown away every year is equivalent to the emissions of 10 million extra cars on British roads annually.

“WRAP’s survey shows the great strides taken by retailers in helping people to tackle food waste, but also how much work there is still to do.

“Fighting food waste needs action from industry, government and consumers and I look forward to working closely with our partners again to achieve this.”

Emily Miles, Food Standards Agency CEO also commented: “We know many people are worried about food affordability and food waste right now. We work closely with WRAP to encourage businesses to use the appropriate date labels and storage advice on food products - and only when needed - so people can make informed choices when shopping for their food.

“A best before date is about quality which means the food will be safe to eat after this date, even if it’s not at its best. It isn’t necessary to have a best before date on certain products like fresh fruit. Use-by dates are important and only used for food which could become unsafe.”