Food waste: Ambitious national reduction target needed, MPs say

A national food waste reduction target and greater transparency from retailers are among the steps required to reduce UK food waste levels, according to a group of MPs who claim the issue is costing the average British citizen £200 per year.

The UK currently has no legal obligation to reduce food waste levels. Under the EU Circular Economy Package, the UK is subject to a food waste reduction target of 50% by 2030, although this figure is only a voluntary aim.

The call for a legally-bind target was made in a new report by the cross-party Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee (Efra). The MPs also raise concerns that Government funding for WRAP has fallen in recent years, and recommend that a review on food date labelling should be issued to industry by the end of 2017.

Supermarkets, meanwhile, should publicly report data on the amount of food they waste and relax rules on cosmetic standards to combat food waste, the Committee has said.

“The Government should drive progress on food waste in England by setting a national target for food waste reduction,” Efra chair Neil Parish MP said. “In the way that Scotland, the USA and many of our European counterparts do. And supermarkets need to do much more. It’s ridiculous that perfectly good vegetables are wasted simply because they’re a funny shape.

“Socially, it is a scandal that people are going hungry and using food banks when so much produce is being wasted. And environmentally it is a disaster, because energy and resources are wasted in production only for the food to end up rotting in landfills where it produces methane – a potent climate-changing gas.”

Growing concern

The report follows a series of Committee evidence sessions on food waste in England, which heard from a range of actors including food waste activists Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Tristram Stuart, the four biggest British supermarkets, and Resource Minister Therese Coffey.

Around £13bn of food was waste in the UK in 2015 alone, the report found. According to WRAP estimates, more than half of this food waste total – around 7.3mt – derived from the home, costing the average household £470 a year.

In a similar vein to Coffey’s comments in last month’s Committee hearing, Efra Committee MPs have said the retail industry should act as a bridge between the consumer and Government to tackle the issue. The Committee calls on supermarkets to make packaging improvements, such as an increased use of split and re-sealable packets.

Retailers should also start selling wonky vegetables as part of their main fruit and vegetables lines, the MPs insist. The wonky veg issue was brought to the nation’s attention back in November 2015 when Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s War on Waste series revealed that as much as 40% of farmers’ crops are being rejected by supermarkets because they are not the right shape or colour.

“Farmers supplying fruits and vegetables to UK supermarkets currently get their produce rejected on the grounds that it fails to meet cosmetic quality standards set by the big retailers,” Parish said. “Knobbly carrots and parsnips don’t cook or taste any different. It’s high time we saved them from the supermarket reject bins!”

Asda and Tesco have both introduced ‘wonky veg’ lines into UK stores, although question marks remain over consumer engagement with these campaigns. The majority of supermarket customers are willing to buy imperfect fruit and vegetables, according to research, but only if the retailers deliver a significant discount on the misshapen products.

Responding to the EAC report findings, a Sainsbury’s spokesperson said: “We’re in full agreement that wonky veg shouldn’t go to waste, which is why we’ve found new ways to use them in our products. 

“Not only will you find them in our loose and basics fruit and veg lines, but they’re also in ready-meals, soups and juices, along with foods like our courgetti, boodles – our butternut squash noodles – and cauliflower rice. By launching these new lines we’re cutting waste, while also bringing our customers exciting new products.”

Inadequate transparency  

Sainsbury’s recently became the second retailer in the UK to publicly release its food waste data, three years after Britain’s biggest supermarket, Tesco. Other retailers have fed their figures into broader industry reports, but the EAC has described these approaches as “inadequate”. The incoming Government should force businesses over a certain size to publicly report data on food waste to create transparency, the Committee said.

The Committee did, however, commend the will shown by retailers to redistribute surplus food. Earlier this year, signatories of the flagship Courtauld Commitment unveiled a new ambition to double the amount of surplus food that is redistributed across the UK.

But the agreement has struggled to gain the support of manufacturers, which Stuart described as “invisible brands, secondary to the public eye”. The EAC has echoed these concerns, and calls on WRAP and the Government to increase participation in the Courtauld process by food manufacturers.

George Ogleby

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