Defra talks may shift food waste balance in favour of charities

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman will hold high-level talks with major retailers and food charities today to examine how more edible food waste can re-distributed to those in need.

The aim of the meeting is to move surplus food generated at store level by the supermarkets further up the waste hierarchy, according to the British Retail Consortium’s (BRC) head of environment Bob Gordon.

Speaking to edie ahead of the roundtable discussion in Westminster, Gordon said that he hoped Defra’s presence would help facilitate a “more effective dialogue” between the key stakeholders involved.

“Retailers have been working with food charities for a long time on this, but the question now is how do we scale it up – there are a lot of economic and practical barriers to overcome,” he pointed out.

Gordon, who will be attending the talks on behalf of the BRC, said ground-level issues such as back of store storage and keeping food cool needed to be addressed, but acknowledged that the conflict with revenue-generating options such as energy recovery would be equally tough to iron out.

“The reality is that supermarkets get a better price for their food waste if it goes into animal feed or anaerobic digestion,” he argued.

Gordon maintained that anaerobic digestion was a “very responsible” route for food waste and challenged food charities who are facing the prospect of diminishing tonnages to up their game and become more competitive by generating revenue streams themselves or by drumming up greater efficiency savings.

However, FareShare’s CEO Lindsay Boswell argued that any surplus food fit for human consumption should be prioritised for charitable re-distribution – and not to do so would be “morally wrong”.

“We think all the supermarkets agree with us in theory on that point, but we currently lack the management energy, willpower and effort to make it happen in reality,” he told edie.

His comments build on a groundswell of support for tough measures to force supermarkets and manufacturers to donate much of their surplus food stock to charity.

Back in March a bill was debated in parliament, brought by Labour MP Kerry McCarthy, which called for legal obligations to be placed on large food waste producers to do this.

If such a bill were to be passed, Boswell admitted that there would be cost issues for charities like FareShare if they suddenly had to cope with significant increases in tonnages, but it was a challenge he would “absolutely welcome”.

“We have capacity here to more than double in terms of food volumes, our biggest barrier is lack of food,” he maintained.

While hopeful the talks would result in an undertaking from the major retailers to work more closely with charities to resolve the issue, Boswell cautioned that it wasn’t just about board level buy-in – engagement needs to filter down to regional manager level with the individual depots, logistics and waste managers.

“We lack dedicated management capacity to try and make a model that works,” he said, adding that WRAP could help address this by supplying project resources to drive it forward.

Boswell, who will also be present at the talks today, said it was important that collaboration didn’t stop at store-level food waste, but eventually encompassed supply chain arisings too.

Other representatives at the roundtable will be Tesco, ASDA, Morrisons, M&S, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Co-op, Boots Alliance, Institute of Grocery Distribution, Food& Drink Federation and FoodCycle.

Maxine Perella

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