Food waste: Focus must shift from supermarkets to supply chains

EXCLUSIVE: Food waste campaigners should stop 'beating up the supermarkets' and instead look further up the supply chain at the untapped redistribution potential of thousands of processors and manufacturers, Britain's largest food redistribution charity has said.

FareShare director of food Mark Varney believes the increasing focus on retailers’ approach to food waste is an “unnecessary distraction” away from a more pressing issue: the lack of fiscal and financial incentives for suppliers and manufacturers to tackle the problem.

Speaking exclusively to edie during an All-Party Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group (APSRG) supply chain event last week, Varney said: “Let’s stop talking about supermarkets. The focus should be on processors and manufacturers – there’s not enough research being done elsewhere in the supply chain.”

Varney’s comments came just days after France made headlines by passing a law which banned major supermarkets from disposing of unspoiled food, prompting calls for the UK to adopt a similar law.

Shelf life

But, with FareShare having already successfully collaborated with all of the major supermarkets on food redistribution programmes, Varney was quick to emphasise the need for suppliers to step up their collaborative efforts in a similar fashion.

Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Co-op are all doing a lot more on food waste than they were three or four years ago,” Varney added. “When food gets to a store, there’s not a lot of life left in it; often only a day or so. In the supply chain, large food manufacturers have two or three thousand tonnes of food dotted around the country in pallets, with 14 days’ life or more left on it.

“For the majority of suppliers, the cost of disposing of surplus food [via anaerobic digestion or animal food] is cheaper than redistributing it. Until there’s a financial incentive for manufacturers and processors to redistribute food, we won’t fully tackle the problem.”

According to WRAP estimates, 15 million tonnes of food is wasted in the UK each year, comparing to around 41 million tonnes of food that is purchased – meaning that the amount of food wasted throughout the supply chain is equivalent to around a third of that purchased. 

‘Stronger regulation’

There are currently a number of Government incentives to support anaerobic digestion of food in the UK – namely Feed-in Tariffs, the Renewables Obligation and the Renewable Heat Incentive. Whilst supportive of this policy framework, Varney pointed out that “the same level of incentives does not exist for feeding people”.

“Where possible, food should be kept as food and provided for charity redistribution, rather than being disposed of via alternative routes”, he said.

When asked about the effectiveness of WRAP’s voluntary Courtauld Commitment for retailers to improve resource efficiency and reduce food waste, Varney said a vountary approach “doesn’t seem to be working” and that “stronger regulation is needed to encourage and incentivise action”.

He added that food waste has become a much broader, social issue, and that retailers need to be focusing on setting a good example for consumers to reduce food waste at home. “It’s not just the industry to blame – we, as consumers, are very fussy,” he said. “As a society, we need to respect food a lot more. But we do need businesses to be doing the right thing.

“If the retailers can get their house in order and be proactive in reducing waste in stores, in the supply chains and in farms, then they will have the authority and licence to educate and encourage consumers.”

War on Waste

The issue of food waste in the UK was thrown into the spotlight late last year by chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, whose ‘War on Waste’ TV show drew attention to the food waste caused by exacting supermarket standards and bad consumer habits.

Recent reports have served to further highlight the lack of supply chain security of food – particularly when it comes to meat and fish – while a number of initiatives have been launched to better understand issues of food waste in every phase of the supply chain.

Retailers have stepped up their efforts, too. In recent weeks, Asda became the first UK supermarket to offer a ‘wonky vegetable’ box, containing enough ugly potatoes and knobbly carrots to feed a family of four for an entire week for just £3.50.

Sainsbury’s, meanwhile, has announced it will be scrapping multi-buy promotions across its food retail outlets in an effort to ease growing food waste concerns.

And Tesco has become a founding member of the cross-sector Champions 12.3 coalition, which aims to accelerate progress towards UN Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 – halving food waste per capita and reducing food losses by 2030.

Luke Nicholls

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