Hugh's war on food waste: Are supermarkets doing enough?
Chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has gone to war on waste, with a new TV show highlighting the food waste caused by exacting supermarket standards. But the retailers have been quick to tell edie about the steps they're taking to tackle the problem.
The first episode of Fearnley-Whittingstall’s new BBC One series Hugh’s War on Waste, which aired on Monday (2 November), reveals that as much as 40% of farmers’ crops are being rejected by supermarkets because they are not the right shape or colour.
At the centre of the show was the Hammond family farm in Norfolk, which has had to ditch up to 20 tonnes of vegetables a week because their apparent cosmetic shortfalls would not be acceptable to their buyer, Morissons.
“It’s happening all over Britain,” Fearnley-Whittingstall said in the programme. It’s not just wasting food, but all of the energy, resources and manpower that goes into producing it.”
The supermarkets that buy the crops say that customers will leave any misshapen produce on the shelves, and that parsnips that are too spindly will go out of date more quickly.
But food waste campaigner Tristram Stuart disputes this in the programme, pointing to occasions when crop failures have led to supermarkets having to use imperfect produce – with no impact on sales.
“To cause waste on this scale is criminal,” Stuart said. “The bottom line here is that these cosmetic standards are far too strict and the obvious solution is that they need to be relaxed.”
edie has spoken to all of Britain’s ‘big four’ supermarkets in the aftermath of the programme, and all four have pointed us to the various initiatives they're running to tackle the problem.
Morrisons, which was at the centre of the parsnip incident, forwarded edie a statement which explained the dilemma the retailer is in with its customers.
Lots of questions about last night’s Hugh’s War on Waste, here's a link to our response to some of your questions https://t.co/l4GT2yw2h0— Morrisons (@Morrisons) November 3, 2015
“Parsnips that are too spindly will go off in your fridge more quickly,” the statement read. “We tried to sell bags of wonky parsnips in cheap bags but as it said in the film not enough customers bought them and many went to waste. We are sorting this out too, by giving our unsold edible food to local community organisations.”
“There’s a lot more work to do on this and we accept we sometimes don’t get this right. This is not an easy problem to solve and clearly we need your help by buying these less perfect products.”
We then heard from Paul Crewe, head of sustainability at Sainsbury’s, who said the company uses its own ‘brand tiers’ to utilise as much of the crop as possible and avoid waste within the fruit and vegetable supply chain.
“Our Basics parsnips will have large, small, tapered and even ‘wonky’ veg in the bag and when they are sold loose it allows us to use bigger veg,” Crewe said. “When we can’t sell it as fresh, fruit and veg will be used in further processed products such as apple juice or ready-made mashed potatoes.”
Crewe explained that Sainsbury’s has a number of other processes and initiatives in place to make sure it can reduce, reuse, recycle and recover anything that is leftover.
“If our suppliers - both branded and own-label - deliver too much, we have an agreement that allows us to donate their food to charity,” he said. “We also distribute leftover food that is perfectly edible and safe to a local food donation partner, which we’ve been doing since 1998. And if it’s not fit for human consumption, it is used for animal feed, while the remainder will go to anaerobic digestion.”
Sainsbury's is also currently in the process of selecting a 'test bed' town in the UK to discover which schemes are most effective in reducing household food waste.
As the only UK supermarket to actually publish its food waste figures, Tesco also says it is going to great lengths to tackle the problem of food waste, with a number of similar initiatives.
A spokesperson for Tesco told edie: “We’ve done a lot to make sure greater quantities of ‘wonky’ fruit and veg are available at Tesco. For years we’ve included a variety of produce of different shapes and sizes in our Everyday Value range.
“Last year we widened our specifications on apples to include products with cosmetic defects. This resulted in over 2000 tonnes of apples being sold in our stores last year that may otherwise have gone to waste.
“In September 2014, we launched a trial in our Irish stores offering specially marked ‘Wonky veg’ packs of carrots and mushrooms. The feedback from customers on these has so far been positive.”
Meanwhile, just two days before the Hugh’s War on Waste TV programme aired, Asda issued a press release announcing that it is expanding its own ‘wonky fruit and veg’ range, along with a new YouTube highlighting the various initiatives the supermarket group is undertaking.
Asda launched six wonky fruit and veg products into five stores in January 2015 which included crooked carrots, knobbly pears and bumpy apples. The range - labelled as ‘beautiful on the inside’ – was bagged separately and then sold at a reduced rate in store.
The initial trial proved so successful that the supermarket extended the range into 25 stores in summer 2015 and has now added two new ‘ugly’ products - sweet potatoes and garlic – to the range. It follows customer research by Asda which found that 65% of Asda shoppers would buy misshapen fruit and veg.
Asda’s produce technical director Ian Harrison said: “It was always meant as a trial to see how customers reacted to slightly scruffier produce but what we’ve learn through Wonky has also enabled us to relax our specifications across a wide variety of our standard produce lines.”
In addition to all of the above initiatives, the big four supermarkets also partake in food redistribution schemes with various charities and organisations – most of which have been announced in the past year. But at a recent event in London, they also unanimously agreed that more collaboration is needed among the industry.
But, as Fearnley-Whittingstall concludes in his programme, the real issue that supermarkets need to tackle is that of customer engagement and behaviour change.
“Engagement is key here,” Fearnley-Whittingstall said. “No one expects the supermarkets to have all the solutions to this very difficult problem. But running away from the problem is not acceptable.
“All the supermarket bosses say they listen to their customers. I’ve been listening to customers and the message is clear: throwing away produce is madness.”
What do you think? A third of all the food we produce never gets eaten, so where does the problem lie? Should the supermarkets be doing more? Is it the responsibility of customers? Or perhaps there’s a broader, cultural issue at play here?
Leave a comment below to let us know your thoughts…