THE HORSE MEAT scandal – and the pressure all those discarded burgers put on recycling facilities – can spark a debate on the growing quantity of food we throw away.
In the UK we spend less than ever on food but waste more of it. The average family spends 11% of its income on food but wastes £680 worth each year. Those in the food industry who have helped drive prices down argue the trend is a positive one – and one that consumers want. Those who have eaten horse burgers recently might disagree. And while food waste is lower than five or six years ago – thanks to awareness campaigns by WRAP and the industry, and to the economic downturn – consumers and businesses can still afford to waste food.
As Jan Kees Vis, the global director for sustainable sourcing at Unilever, said at the CropWorld Global 2012 conference: “Places that offer food for lunch – chilled, day-fresh – have made incredible growth, but the result is a lot of food is wasted. A big factor in why we waste so much food is that food has become too cheap.”
A report in January by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers found that as much as 50% of all food produced globally never gets eaten. Up to 30% of UK vegetable crops are not harvested because they fail to meet exacting standards, while up to half the food bought in Europe and the US is thrown away.
In the past few weeks, these levels of waste could well have risen as consumers dumped frozen burgers and lasagnes in the bin and businesses desperately tried to dispose of anything that might contain horse DNA. While it won’t have made a dent on the 1.2-2bn tonnes of food that the report said is thrown away, some believe the crisis has burdened the waste sector.
Adam Read, a waste expert at consultants Ricardo-AEA, said: “Supermarkets have thrown out potentially tainted product and consumers may have cleared their fridge and shelves rather than risk eating horse. All of this will have put a finite strain on the system over a three or four-week period.”
Biffa reported that intake at its large anaerobic digestion plant in Cannock hit 100 tonnes a week for a fortnight. “We had to say no after a certain point because we have got a responsibility to maintain a particular mix of waste,” the waste company’s director of engineering, John Casey, told the local paper.
Read says that the extra food sent to anaerobic digestion and composting plants could not all have been safely or suitably stored, “so some will have ended up in landfill”. How much is anyone’s guess.
The food industry says the scandal has not affected the way it deals with waste, yet supermarkets and caterers have been reluctant to release figures, citing “commercial sensitivities”. The British Retail Consortium believes that because of the small number of products affected, food withdrawn due to horse meat would not have added much to the normal waste processed by retailers. Some of the foodservice companies involved confirmed their disposal policy for affected products: Compass has separated it from packaging and sent it to anaerobic digestion, while Brakes says its waste contractor will have incinerated it.
The horse meat scandal may not have created much waste, but it has stimulated a debate. Read sees consumers changing the way they buy and said the idea that “throwing away half of the buy-one-get- one-free is a waste of money is resonating with businesses and consumers”.