How honest are supermarkets being on food waste?

It's time for the major food retailers to open up and reveal in granular detail how much food is being wasted across their supply chains - Tristram Stuart puts his point of view across to Maxine Perella

The one environmental agenda that has real bite at the moment is food waste. Interest in the issue has intensified over the past few years – many of the major food retailers now see it as a meaty hook to hang their green credentials from. It touches a nerve with consumers and as such, has stirred a heady sense of competitiveness among those businesses who wish to be seen to tackling the issue head-on.

That said, how much effort are retailers – and their supply chains – really putting in, not only in terms of minimising wasteful practices around food waste, but demonstrating transparency? It’s hard to know when to a large degree, the data is fudged – or lacking – according to a leading voice in this field, Tristram Stuart.

Stuart heads up Feeding the 5,000 – a global campaign that works with governments, businesses and society to catalyse change in social attitudes and help engineer solutions to deal with the food waste crisis. An ardent environmentalist, he travels extensively around the world with key stakeholders visiting farms and suppliers to witness what is going on first hand. What he often sees, he says, is shocking.

“I went to Kenya in February and saw farmers out there wasting 40% of the food they grow because it doesn’t meet arbitrary or overly strict cosmetic standards for the supermarkets they supply. They were cutting beans in half to fit into specified trays and suffering from the consequences of cancelled forecasts,” he recalls.

What is happening out in Kenya is likely being replicated across other global supply chains. Earlier this year a report from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers criticised major food retailers for not doing enough to address the issue – with up to half the world’s food estimated to be going to waste each year (2 billion tonnes), it called for supermarkets to relax strict sell-by dates, sell more misshapen produce and ease up on bulk offers.

However where the real problem lies according to Stuart is much, much further down the supply chain – at farm level. And it’s a problem that isn’t really getting reported on. Retailers have no legal obligation to publicly report on food waste arisings and if they do, supply chain waste is often missed off official figures, thus giving a distorted picture.

“There is a huge amount of emphasis on waste at the consumer level, but one of my main concerns is how that is being used to deflect attention away from waste in the supply chain,” Stuart asserts. “Our campaign looks particularly at how supermarket policies offload food waste onto their suppliers, particularly farmers, who have no option but to waste sometimes between 30% to 100% of it.”

While WRAP’s Courtauld Commitment is going in the right direction by getting the UK food industry to work together to help reduce wastage levels both within store and among suppliers, Stuart points out that it still remains a voluntary agreement with no targeted measurables at production level.

“It’s something we have been taking to Defra about for years, there is an ongoing issue of how much food is wasted on farms because no-one has really measured it. There has been movement on this I’m pleased to say, and Defra have committed money to try and answer that question,” Stuart says.

What Stuart would like to see is greater accountability among the major food retailers on this front given their level of influence right down the supply chain. In many cases, he argues, it’s “blindingly obvious” what needs to be done and certain problems can be tackled instantly.

“One of the supermarkets we are working with went to visit their Costa Rican pineapple growers and saw piles of rotting pineapples rejected because they were a few millimeters too big for the specification required. So they decided to market some supersized pineapples within their stores to see if they’d sell, and they did.”

Besides relaxing such specifications, another area that supermarkets could address is smarter forecasting – and communicating that level of knowledge with their suppliers. Stuart says that progress is being made here, but would like to see retailers go one step further.

“Say you get a forecast wrong, if you take responsibility for the waste that is generated from that inaccurate forecast you can try and help your supplier find a secondary market for that product. We are yet to see significant measured reductions in food waste as a result of that.”

Asked what levers could effectively force supermarkets to open up their supply chains to greater scrutiny, Stuart points to various legislative measures such as the recently passed Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill and the European Transparency Directive, but ultimately he reckons competition will be the real game-changer.

“When I go and talk to supermarkets, the point at which they prick up their ears is when they hear one of their competitors has done something more than they have. When we finally get one of the big supermarkets to report in a transparent way, that will provide a best practice gold standard for the industry … and there will be a race to catch up with that best practice.”

Maxine Perella is waste editor at edie

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