Facing up to food waste

Mandatory reporting is on the cards but is now the right time to force foodservice businesses to publish their data? David Burrows reports.

The consultation on the mandatory reporting of food waste for businesses was due in 2019. Two years on and it’s yet to appear as industry continues to reel from the impacts of the pandemic. So when it does emerge should firms be forced to file their food waste data?

It’s a topic we chewed over in the recent Footprint40 podcast, with the government’s food waste champion Ben Elliot. He felt that many restaurants and caterers were “doing a good job”. Those he has met are “responsible people” and “so focused on margins” that minimising food waste is essential.

You sensed he wasn’t sure if now was the right time to be reaching for the stick. “For me in this role, or Defra or Wrap, to be going hard at [foodservice companies] at the moment … you have to be bloody careful,” he said. “Some of these businesses are not going to survive.”

He has a point. And let’s be clear: this reporting will likely be aimed at larger food companies (the strategy uses the phrase “businesses of an appropriate size”).

But there is also a solid argument that renewed focus on reducing waste can aid the government’s promised green recovery. For every £1 invested in food waste prevention measures, the return was £7 for hotels, according to a 2018 report by the champion's 12.3 initiative.

Foodservice should be particularly precious about its food waste. Manufacturers and retailers waste a combined 2.1m tonnes, according to 2015 data in the resources strategy, worth around £2.2bn. Hospitality and foodservice chuck away around 1m tonnes but the value of this is £2.9bn. “Even if the moral imperative doesn’t move us, the business case for reducing food waste should persuade every CEO,” said Dave Lewis, Tesco’s former boss.

Tesco has of course led the charge on food waste auditing; and been frustrated by the sluggish response from its competitors. BaxterStorey is the only hospitality and foodservice business to be publicly reporting its food waste data through Wrap’s voluntary food waste reduction roadmap. The caterer has cut food waste by 42% since 2014, saving clients over £2m in disposal costs. This means money can be reinvested in higher quality ingredients and meals.

Elliot said the talks he had with businesses for ‘Step up to the plate’ – an initiative he launched in 2019 and involved firms committing to the roadmap and food waste targets – were hugely positive. “I didn’t find any of the conversations I had with the purchasing directors or CEOs as difficult as I did with some of the retailers.”

Why the reluctance to publish data, then? In foodservice, it appears many are working to reduce food waste but are nervous about publishing their figures. “We are reluctant to share data unless we can verify it and that it can be trusted so we deliberately haven’t publicly reported food waste – because to be frank our data has been nonsense as we are trying to estimate tonnage,” noted one firm’s representative during a Footprint Responsible Business Recovery Forum last year.

This job has, perhaps, become even harder during the pandemic. Not only has sustainability expertise been lost from teams as companies cut staff, but demand has become much harder to predict.

Takeaways are no longer largely just for the weekend, for example. In a survey of 341 restaurants by Just Eat and the Sustainable Restaurant Association last year, ‘fluctuations/unpredictable consumer ordering patterns’ were the main reason for food waste (54%). Food waste generated per restaurant per week increased from £111 to £148. Customers bemoaned large portion sizes and items they didn’t ask for.

A year on from that poll and more people are, thankfully, able to eat out. However, no-shows have become a headache, in more ways than one. As the British chef and writer Sam Wydymus noted in a piece for The Guardian last year: “As the unused tables are cleared, it’s not just a fridge full of wasted food, it’s the people who depend on the restaurant’s viability for their livelihood.”

On the plus side, the pandemic has allowed outlets to reduce ranges and this is, anecdotally at least, helping reduce waste. The latest figures on redistribution were also welcome (up 340% to 4,602 tonnes since 2017). Wrap reckons there is an additional 10,000 to 30,000 tonnes available for redistribution.

Clearly there is more to be done to reduce food waste, and Elliot will be one of those leading the charge. But can we do so without data?

In Wrap’s progress report against sustainable development goal 12.3 (halving per capita food waste by 2030), hospitality tonnages had actually increased by 19.3% between 2011 and 2018 – from 920,000 tonnes to almost 1.1m tonnes. That increase “nearly wipes out” the progress food manufacturers have made, noted campaign group Feedback in a paper published in October.

But is the data right? Wrap wasn’t sure. “Currently there is not a data source to enable a UK-level estimate for food waste from this sector to be robustly estimated,” it said. Indeed, it had to assume that food waste per site has remained constant since 2011. A number of outlets would contest that, for sure, but without data they can’t prove the excellent work they are doing.

Data on food waste will become more important as companies develop their net-zero commitments and plans (food waste is a very significant contributor to climate change: the emissions associated with the avoidable food waste from the hospitality sector alone are some 2.7m tonnes). Feedback argued that, alongside mandatory business measurement of food waste, government should provide sufficient funding to develop a comprehensive baseline for UK food waste. This funding should target hard to measure sectors, such as hospitality and foodservice (where the sector is fragmented and many small businesses do not have the resources to effectively measure or report on their waste, and primary production).

Fifteen years after the first UK food waste agreement, under 10% of major food businesses have committed to even full transparency on their food waste figures. We can’t waste any more time so let’s get on with the consultation. Businesses need support to report.

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