ANALYSIS: Bringing the food waste debate to the boil

The ethics surrounding food waste are back on the menu today (March 14) as MPs prepare to debate a new bill which would force supermarkets and manufacturers to donate much of their surplus stock to charity.

For many, food waste is a moral issue especially when it remains edible and can be redistributed to those who are in need of nourishment. The bill is being brought forward by Labour MP Kerry McCarthy under parliament’s 10-minute rule – and is backed by several high profile figures including Zac Goldsmith, Caroline Lucas and chef Lorraine Pascale.

The bill itself calls for three legislative changes – first, a legal obligation on large food waste producers such as supermarkets and manufacturers to donate surplus edible food to charity. That which is not fit for human consumption should be turned into animal feed.

Second, incentives for smaller waste producers, including public bodies, to donate their food waste. Third – and most interesting – a new act under which food banks and donors who donate surplus stock in good faith to be exempt from prosecution if any resulting cases of food poisoning occur.

But where big business is concerned, often the economics outweigh any humanitarian argument. Waste producers are being encouraged by government to look at energy recovery as the natural route for food waste – notably anaerobic digestion (AD).

Last October Sainsbury’s signed a deal with Biffa to send all of its distribution centre food waste for AD processing – the closed loop potential it offers companies in terms of tapping into some of that energy further down the line is just too tempting.

That said, food waste still presents a fundamental dilemma for many corporates. When I spoke to Sainsbury’s climate change manager Jack Cunningham about the issue a few months back, he admitted there was a conflict – particularly as his company had built a good relationship with redistribution charity Fareshare over the years.

I spoke to some neutral observers to see if they could offer any pearls of wisdom. Adam Read, who heads up the waste arm of consultancy AEA, believes it wouldn’t be practically possible to set up a national food redistribution model along the lines that McCarthy’s bill suggests.

“I can see the rationale for it, but there will be all sorts of issues concerning food quality, safety, potential illness and liabilities,” he said. “While it is ethically sound, it may not drive retailer change as there is no cost involved, whereas the AD route does cost money and helps drive efficiencies in the process whilst also reducing risks around energy supply chains.”

His colleague Jackie Fitzgerald, a technical analyst at AEA, concurs but adds that she wouldn’t rule out redistribution as a possible management technique in the future. “I can see a shift in the way organisations think and manage food … but the supermarkets’ main concerns are the health implications.”

Privately, however, some believe it is more a case of retailer reluctance to reveal just how much food they do waste. Many won’t publicly reveal that information, fearful of a backlash from their customers who are now increasingly informed about the issue thanks to the work of WRAP’s ‘love food, hate waste’ campaign and other initiatives like London’s Feeding the 5k.

According to independent consultant Chris Coggins, prevention is the ultimate goal – but often gets overlooked. He believes reuse, where food that has passed its best-before date is donated onto charities, falls under this term and should be counted as such – particularly as the Government is working up its national waste prevention plan.

Coggins is also concerned by what he feels is a “headlong rush” by government and business down the AD route – which could backfire if arisings start to fall. He added that some companies are quoting a 50 mile radius to source food waste, which would indicate that some AD plants are already facing feedstock supply problems.

Retailers would also argue that they are reducing food waste year-on-year due to better stock forecasting methods and improvements in packaging. According to Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, of all the food waste generated in the UK, only 6% comes from retail compared to over 50% from households.

It’s a complex and divisive issue – and as of yet, no real joined-up thinking from ministers who seem to be pushing in one hand, AD as a recovery route, and in the other, food waste prevention through arms-length campaigning. What emerges from McCarthy’s bill will surely add yet more flavour to the debate.

Maxine Perella

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