Coffey appeared before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) Committee earlier today (22 March) in its final evidence session on food waste in England. The session was forced to end prematurely due to the suspected terrorist incident at Westminster, which led to Parliament being evacuated.

During the session, Coffey highlighted that educational retail campaigns – such as Sainsbury’s Waste Less, Save More strategy – are a far more effective tool in creating consumer behaviour change than any Government-led approach.  

“It’s challenging for the Government not to end up sounding like the nanny state,” she said. “We have done some messaging. We’re trying to do it through some trusted retailers, rather than the Government telling consumers to waste less – we know that’s not effective.

“How do we make that more meaningful? There is more we can continue to do. That is why I recently wrote to the supermarket chief executives, again, to make us think more about their customers. Because, at the end of the day, they know their customers much better than we do. That is their bread and butter. It’s about how their messaging can continue to do that.”

Innovative methods

UK consumers throw away more than seven million tonnes of food each year, costing an average of around £700 per household. Indeed, food thrown away by households has in fact risen by 0.3 million tonnes in three years.

Minister Coffey admitted that these figures are “not far off” from plateauing. In order to mitigate the worsening situation, Coffey said she and other policymakers would encourage the retail sector to apply innovative methods to reduce household food waste, through extended shelf life and improved packaging methods.  

“It’s fair to say we’re working on a strategy,” Coffey said. “I’m very conscious that for all intents and purposes, it [household food waste levels] hasn’t plateaued quite, but it’s not far off. Businesses and food services are making good strides. So turning our attentions to householders and individuals, there are innovations coming through on things like packaging.”

Good progress

Coffey made reference to technological innovations used in Sainsbury’s Swandlicote food waste campaign, which donated 15,000 fridge thermometers to households across the town to enable consumers to check whether their fridge was at the optimum temperature for storing food.

She confirmed the Government will look at potential improvements in package labelling, an issue raised in a previous Efra Committee session by food waste campaigners Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Tristram Stuart. Coffey also took into consideration the pricing strategies of brands, which she said can often lead to consumers buying “considerably more than they need.”

The Resource Minister also reserved praise for the retailers and manufacturers that collaborate to reduce food waste levels through the Courtauld Commitment, an initiative which has helped businesses to generated an estimated £100m in food waste savings over a three-year period. The voluntary nature of the agreement was defended by Coffey, who claimed that the latest statistics only serve to negate the need for a regulatory approach.

She added: “We’ve seen good progress from businesses through the Caurtauld approach and the different elements of it. As a consequence, I don’t see the point in regulating businesses if they are making good, steady progress. We might need to have a slightly increased step-change, but from what I’ve seen, and the evidence you have read, we have seen a step-change from some of the large retailers in being proactive in what they do in this area.”

The Courtauld 2025 commitment has set a voluntary target for business to reduce food and drink waste and the associated carbon emissions by one fifth by 2025. This target is achievable, according to Coffey, although she did admit her confidence levels were “not 100%”.

“I am keen that we do make progress towards that and that’s why we are pulling different levers to make that happen,” she said.

The Westminster attack led to Coffey’s speech being cut short as Parliament was evacuated. The Efra Committee has not yet confirmed if the end of the session will be rescheduled.

Today’s hearing was the last in a series of Committee evidence sessions on food waste in England. The previous Committee session saw Efra Committee members grill supermarket giants Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Waitrose on a range of issues including food package labelling and the ongoing discount culture among Britain’s retailers.

George Ogleby

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