How can businesses tackle Britain’s food waste problem?

Financial incentives for redistribution and publicly reported data on food waste were among the proposals put forward by business and political figures at a high-level panel discussion about food waste in Westminster.

Food waste managers from across the UK convened in the House of Lords yesterday (3 July) to discuss the findings of the recently published Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) Committee inquiry into food waste in England, which revealed that around £13bn of food was wasted in 2015 alone.

The report recommended that the next Government looks at how it could promote the redistribution of surplus food by additional fiscal measures. This proposal was supported by Britain’s largest food redistribution charity organisation Fareshare, which estimates that it currently costs around £70-120 per tonne to keep surplus food in the supply chain.

Speaking at yesterday’s event, which was hosted by the All-Party Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group (APSRG), FareShare’s director of food Mark Varney said: “Supermarket shelves might be where food waste is most visible to consumers, but it’s important to remember that the bulk of surplus food is actually found further up the supply chain – with manufacturers, processors and growers.

“The UK needs to provide small but tangible incentives to food businesses help address the real costs of keeping surplus stock in the human supply chain. Businesses need money incentives to pass on food to humans, as it is currently more profitable to pass onto animal feed or anaerobic digestion (AD).”

Economic case

Fareshare has successfully collaborated with all of the major supermarkets on food redistribution programmes. It last year worked with Tesco on the national roll-out of a comprehensive and innovative online ‘FoodCloud’ platform, which has seen the supermarket pass on around 13 million meals for more than 2,200 charities.

Varney was sat alongside Tesco’s group quality director Tim Smith, who reiterated the retailer’s aim that no food fit for human consumption would go to waste in UK operations by the end of 2017. He noted that the task has been facilitated through the implementation of innovative tools, such as an online food waste ‘hotline’ which helps suppliers and producers to identify and prevent potential supply chain food waste.

Smith highlighted the growing economic case to invest in food waste prevention. Tesco is a founding member of the cross-sector Champions 12.3 coalition, which earlier released a report that estimated that tackling food waste could generate financial returns of around $14 for every $1 spent on mitigation. Smith confirmed that Tesco is keen to procure its own individual figure to show to display the business benefits to various stakeholders.

He said: “When we found out about the World Resource Institute’s (WRI’s) 14:1 multiplier, it was helpful in persuading those people who were on the fringes of the discussion that it’s a good thing to get behind. We need to know what that multiplier is for Tesco. It would be extremely helpful to show others a figure that the WRI produced.”

Greater transparency

Efra’s report also called on supermarkets to publicly report data on the amount of food they waste. Sainsbury’s recently became the second retailer in the UK to publicly release its food waste data, three years after Tesco. Other retailers have fed their figures into broader industry reports, but Efra described these approaches as “inadequate”. 

The Committee said that the new Government should force businesses over a certain size to publicly report data on food waste to create transparency. But according to Dr Julian Parfitt, resource policy advisor of sustainability consultancy Anthesis Group, who also sat on yesterday’s panel discussion, it may only need one other retailer to follow Tesco’s lead “for the floodgates to open”. This would negate the need for any form of regulatory intervention, Parfitt said.

Parfitt emphasised Smith’s point about the need to build a business case for food waste prevention in the retail sector, explaining that it would help to mainstream the topic within the business culture of large supermarket chains, “where people work in silos”. But Parfitt suggested that the business focus should shift away from redistribution, which he said fails to tackle the heart of the problem – namely oversupply within the supply chain.

“We need to move the discussion away from just talking about redistribution towards making much more effective feedback routes that are collaborative, where suppliers have to be involved when there’s planning to be dealt with,” he said. “That multiplier is going to be huge. All that added value within the food product right at the end of the supply chain at the retail stage, the multipliers are going to be much bigger. If they’re about ordering the right quantity, then that is where the real prize is.”

George Ogleby

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