Sainsbury’s boss clashes with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall over food waste management

Sainsbury's chief executive Mike Coupe has fended off a fresh wave of criticism from celebrity chef-turned-eco-warrior Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall about the "ridiculous system" of exacting cosmetic standards of the fruit and veg sold by Britain's supermarkets.

In a lively debate at the London Evening Standard Food Forum at King’s College last night (11 October), Coupe and Fearnley-Whittingstall joined a high-level panel of food waste campaigners, chefs and industry experts to discuss the most effective solutions to the issue of food waste in the capital.

Throughout the discussion, Hugh’s War on Waste presenter Fearnley-Whittingstall reiterated his plea for the nation’s supermarkets to display “real initiative” in their efforts to cut down on waste; insisting that a bolder, self-regulatory approach would drive transparency and, ultimately, reward retailers with additional custom.

“I’d like to see one of the supermarkets completely break ranks with this ridiculous system and say ‘we won’t have it anymore’,” Fearnley-Whittingstall said. “Cosmetic standards are the reason that a colossal amount of food in the supply chain is going to waste. That really ‘invisible’ stuff on the farm is being systematically thrown away.

“The dumping of huge amounts of food is now built into the system, and the entire retail food sector is based on oversupply because it lets this very competitive industry do lots of cynical things. Retailers trade one supplier off against another, and dump one supplier if they’re not prepared to cut their prices. It enables them to have this crazy cosmetic war. The casualty of that war is 30-40% of that product being left to rot in the field or being dumped.”

Sainsbury’s boss Coupe sought to reassure the audience that his company “looks constantly” at the approach it takes to managing the cosmetic standards of its fruit and vegetables. But Coupe also noted that aesthetics still play a crucial role in food shoppers’ decision-making. “I’m very happy to demonstrate to Hugh – as we did in one of his programmes – that if you put products side by side, people will choose the most cosmetically-attractive products,” Coupe said. “In the end, products are driven by what customers want to buy.”

Common currency

Coupe’s claims are supported by a recent consumer trial conducted by fellow supermarket Morrisons, which found that ‘ugly’ courgettes sold much more slowly than ‘class one’ variations. Many retailers have introduced specific ‘wonky’ ranges in an effort to drive consumer behaviour change, while others have relaxed cosmetic standards across some veg lines.

Sainsbury’s is generally considered one of the better industry performers on food waste, having undertaken a number of pioneering projects to tackle the issue. A recent partnership with food waste recycling firm ReFood, for example, saw biomethane produce 10% of the retailer’s entire annual energy consumption. Sainsbury’s is also investing £1m to trial new food waste projects in a town in Derbyshire, which it says could halve waste in the area, and in one instance the retailer is powering one of its stores in the West Midlands entirely by food waste.

During the panel discussion, Fearnley-Whittingstall challenged Coupe to continue this positive momentum by improving the transparency of its operations. In one exchange, the Sainsbury’s boss was implored to release figures on the amount of food waste at every level of the retailer’s supply chain. Coupe asserted this would be unfeasible due to “commercial confidentiality”, although he did state that collective transparency from supermarkets would enable retailers to improve the current situation.

“In the end, we need to get to a common currency for the industry,” Coupe added. “We publish figures such as the total; how much we give to food donation, and how much goes to anaerobic digestion (AD). But there is a balance between transparency and commercial confidentiality. I also think it’s important to get more transparency higher up the supply chain. My experience with these things is that competitive pressure drives change. If it’s out there on an equal footing or base then it will drive organisations like ourselves to do a better job.”

Full disclosure

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. While other retailers have fed their figures into broader industry reports, Fearnley-Whittingstall and fellow campaigner Tristram Stuart – who also sat on the panel at last night’s Food Forum debate – believe that full disclosure from all major supermarkets is a crucial next step in the journey towards a zero-food-waste economy.

Stuart, founder of the charity Feedback, was Whittingstall’s food waste advisor in last year’s inaugural War on Waste TV episode. During the panel debate, he urged Sainsbury’s and other supermarkets to provide more granularity on the detail of food waste data being disclosed, which would in turn improve industry standards and support Government regulation.

He said: “How much are you wasting? Where are you wasting it? What kind of food, and what quality? That’s the information we all need if we are going to build a structure to redistribute. It will help Government to develop policy, too. We need to know that information.

“Why don’t the supermarkets publish it? Because it’s commercially-sensitive information. If you manage to nail the issue of food waste and all of your competitors see that, they learn how to reduce waste and you lose your competitive edge. That is the basis for regulation to say ‘you must do it’. Granularity is the next step.”

According to WRAP estimates, more than 15 million tonnes (mt) of food is wasted in the UK each year, compared with around 41 million tonnes of food that is purchased. A small minority of this waste (0.2mt) comes from the retail and wholesale sectors, however, with the majority (11.7mt) coming from the manufacturer, supplier and household stages.

George Ogleby

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