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Stop the Supermarkets wasting Food

I had a conversation the other day about food being wasted. It surprised me. I thought I’d heard it all: wonky carrots rejected, orders for beans switched from Kenya to Guatemala.

I heard from a retailer that used to sell tons of supermarket own-label dried soups, pasta and rice — “de-identified” — for a big manufacturer. The supermarket found out this was going on and threatened the manufacturer with legal action. Since then all that pasta, rice and soup has gone to landfill even though it is perfectly good.

The reason I can’t tell you the names of the supermarket and the manufacturer involved is because of what Tristram Stuart, the country’s pre-eminent food-waste campaigner, calls “the climate of fear”.

What he means is that there are about 2,000 big manufacturers of food in this country and six big supermarkets. People know where the power lies. At the whim of the retailers, huge volumes of food are thrown away or ploughed back into the ground by manufacturers and farmers who dare not complain.

Food waste in Britain is particularly scandalous because it seems to be the worst in Europe. But you do need to look at the big picture if you want to understand why it happens.

Of the 15m tons of food that is wasted, 8m is produced in the home. I know we could all do more with our leftovers but there are easier ways.

The waste everyone thinks about next is the sandwiches and ready meals that all too often go out the back of a supermarket, for anaerobic digestion.

That is because subsidised energy companies will take it off their hands whereas if charities accept the food they need it to be refrigerated and handled properly, which costs. Bad, but this is only about 180,000 tons a year.

The unseen bit of the foodwaste iceberg is the 4m tons of waste produced by manufacturing, packaging and processing companies (offcuts, offal or simply food that is surplus to order) and the 3m tons produced on farms. Of the 4m tons of manufacturing waste, 400,000 tons is thought to be recoverable and redistributable as food, such as soup, rice and pasta.

Only a fraction of this finds its way into the redistribution system, which includes shops and online outlets selling food close to its “best before” date as well as charities such as FareShare that distribute food that the food industry cannot sell.

There are 15,000 voluntary groups buying food that would love to get their hands on all this surplus food. If they got all of it, it would save them up to £200m a year, quite apart from potentially saving the industry money and reducing its environmental footprint.

To give you an idea how pathetic Britain is, only 8,000 tons of surplus food reaches the needy through charities and food banks in Britain, compared with 100,000 tons in France — which gives tax breaks to companies so food gets to charities — and 87,000 tons in Italy.

Happily, companies at last seem to be taking food waste seriously, thanks to stalwart campaigning by Stuart and his charity Feedback, and the television chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who has championed them.

The charity Wrap, formerly a government body, presided over what amounted to a crisis meeting recently: what emerged was the Courtauld Commitment, announced last week, which committed 100 signatories, including the main supermarkets, to reduce food waste by 20% by 2025 — a relatively unambitious target.

Tesco then said it would sell wonky vegetables and donate surplus food to charities instead of anaerobic digesters. Better still, Tesco has already begun to report publicly on the food it wastes and where it goes, the only big company to do so.

That transparency is crucial. For if all the companies on the list had to be open about where their surplus food went, there wouldn’t be so much waste.

My feeling is that it is still going to take more than a voluntary agreement to make companies further up the supply chain report on their mistakes or dish the dirt when supermarkets cancel orders on them.

It is going to take investigations by the groceries code adjudicator and perhaps legislation to stop what we have all now been persuaded is an egregious, unfair and immoral waste of perfectly good food.

Source: www.thetimes.co.uk - 20 March 2016