Food waste activists call for policy overhaul

Prominent food waste campaigners Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Tristram Stuart have called on the UK Government to implement several food waste policies such as labelling reform, national reduction targets and the strengthened role of an independent adjudicator between supermarkets and suppliers.

The pair appeared before the Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (Efra) this morning (15 November) as part of the Committee’s first evidence hearing into food waste in England.

Stuart, founder of environmental campaign group Feedback, noted the “very strong case” to remove the ‘best-before’ labelling on a range of food products, a phenomenon which creates an estimated £1m worth of household waste each year in the UK.

The UK is currently governed by the EU Food Labelling Directive, which makes it illegal for a food company to confuse people with date labels. However, Stuart highlighted specific examples where businesses are “deliberately confusing people with date labels and that is illegal”, stating that he would “go past them in court if I had the resources to do so”.

“When you ask cold meat product manufacturers how they calculate ‘use-by’ dates, it’s not the date they become microbiologically hazardous, it’s the date they think the pastry will no longer retain crispness,” Stuart told Efra. “That is an abuse of what the ‘use-by’ date is there for. It confuses customers… It makes people believe they have to throw away food when by no stretch of the imagination is it at risk.”

Clearer guidelines

Stuart’s Feedback group works with businesses in the US where there are currently no federal laws on food date labels. US regulators are, however, looking at making a list of foods that have to possess the use-by date. This system creates a two-fold solution of removing date labels on products which don’t require them, and ensuring the products carry the correct dates, Stuart claims.

“There is certainly a very strong case to get rid of best-before on an awful lot of products,” he continued. “Fresh fruit and vegetables, are you kidding me? A fresh pack of bananas that has a best-before date, in my view it takes another week for them to go off. People just see the date and think they need to chuck it.

“The use-by date does get used on a lot of products like yoghurts, milk and meet, none of which actually requires a use-by date. They should be best-before products. A lot of products are carrying use-by dates that don’t require it. We should be clearer at least in guidelines if not in legislation, about what foods should carry what dates, so that the abuse which causes confusion and unnecessary food waste can be addressed.”

The call for labelling reform was supported by TV broadcaster and food waste campaigner Fearnley-Whittingstall, whose high-profile ‘War on Waste’ BBC series has lamented the amount of unnecessary food being thrown away by British supermarkets.

Today, Fearnley-Whittingstall told Efra: “Tristram has explained very well a complicated area that needs clarity and reform. You need to start with that core number of products where the public needs genuine protection from the development of a biological hazard if the food should turn, but it is a very small number of products.”

Direct protection

Later in the Committee hearing, Stuart made the case for the UK Government to “beef-up” its regulatory approach.

The Groceries Code Adjudicator (GCA) was set up in 2014 oversee the relationship between supermarkets and their suppliers, after an independent report found a concentration of power in the hands of the five major supermarkets which control 80% of grocery sales in the UK. The GCA ensures that large supermarkets treat their direct suppliers lawfully and fairly, investigates complaints and arbitrates in disputes.

Stuart welcomed the GCA’s role in effectively preventing retailers from dictating terms to the rest of the market, but highlighted existing loopholes which allow the supermarkets to carry on exploiting suppliers. The GCA only protects direct suppliers of supermarkets, meaning that supermarkets can essentially use ‘middle-men’ and favourable terms and conditions to make audit cancellations and forecast amendments. Stuart is therefore calling for stronger GCA regulations to protect indirect suppliers from mistreatment.

“There is a consultation which is now open which is reviewing the role of the GCA,” Stuart said. “It is my strong opinion that what needs to happen is that indirect suppliers are directly protected by the GCA, no matter how far down the line of supply they are.

Fearnley-Whittingstall agreed that heightened scrutiny of supermarket practices in the form of an independent regulator would help to ensure supermarkets maintain and accelerate supplier responsibility.

He added: “Every supplier I have talked to has had this issue at one time or another. To the flip of that, hardly any of the fruit producers in the country would step up and talk about this on camera. That’s the experience we’ve had.

“Why do we think we can’t have an ombudsman? The framework is there, it’s just the step up of the power and the structure. There seems to be a great possible gain to be made.”

‘Invisible brands’

The Government’s voluntary Courtald Commitment 2025 urges Britain’s food and drink firms to pledge to major reductions in food waste. The scheme has gained traction among high-profile brands within the retail sector, which recognise the reputational risks of failing to comply. But the agreement has struggled to gain the support of manufacturers, which Stuart called “invisible brands, secondary to the public eye”.

Manufacturer reluctance would be automatically removed if England adopted a national target for food waste reduction in the same way that Scotland and the US does, Stuart stated.

“I would like a national target to be like the Climate Act which is a legally-binding document to bind the Government to a national target across the supply chain,” he said. “This would drive innovation in areas which provide the biggest possible wins. We would stop scraping around on the relatively minor issues of food waste just because they are high-profile.”

Stuart and Fearnley-Whittingstall recently joined a high-level panel of food waste campaigners, chefs and industry experts to discuss the most effective solutions to the issue of food waste in the UK. During the discussion, Stuart asked supermarkets to provide more granularity on the detail of food waste data being disclosed, which would in turn improve industry standards and support Government regulation.

George Ogleby

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