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Food waste U-turn could cost millions

The government’s decision to abandon plans for mandatory food waste reporting could cost businesses millions of pounds, according to new analysis.

Defra recently confirmed it will not be proceeding with plans to force large food businesses to report their food waste, despite the policy enjoying majority support among businesses. It cited concerns that the costs of introducing the regulation were too high.

Analysis, however, suggests the savings from mandatory reporting would far outweigh any short-term costs. Using figures from the government’s own impact assessment for the proposal, the food charity Feedback calculated that if mandatory food waste reporting in England led to just a 1% reduction in food waste in large and medium sized food businesses, this would result in net total savings to businesses of an estimated £24.4m per year. These net savings would rise to an estimated £167m a year with a 5% reduction in food waste, and an estimated £703m a year with a still relatively conservative 20% reduction in food waste – representing potential savings of £120,000 to £460,000 per business annually.

The original policy proposal enjoyed strong business support. Stripping out the individuals who participated en masse via a campaign organised by Feedback, 80% of consultation respondents were in favour of making food waste measurement and reporting mandatory for large food businesses. This included a large majority of businesses from the hospitality and foodservice (73%) and retail (79%) sectors. Manufacturers were more circumspect but 45% still voted for mandatory measures.

WSH’s director of sustainable business Mike Hanson described the U-turn as “absolutely staggering and a scandalous dereliction of duty”.

The government’s own justification for the policy reversal appeared to contradict its own analysis. The impact assessment estimated the total average annual reporting costs to business to be £5.3m, equivalent to £32,362 per year for a business new to food waste reporting. Yet it also calculated that just 3,954 tonnes of food must be reduced over a 10-year period to counterbalance the total cost of the regulation, stating that “this seems achievable and extremely small” compared to the approximate 1,580,082 tonnes of food being wasted by large food businesses in England each year, equating to 0.25% of this food waste.

A voluntary approach to reporting will now remain in place until at least mid-2025 at which point a review will be undertaken. 

Martin Bowman, Feedback’s senior policy and campaigns manager, described the decision to abandon plans for mandatory reporting as “an insult”, adding: “We have over a decade’s evidence to show that voluntary reporting hasn’t worked.”

Feedback is now calling for urgent delivery of mandatory food waste reporting and wants to see medium-sized businesses required to report publicly alongside large businesses.

The charity has also called on the government to “urgently deliver” a consultation on setting mandatory food waste reduction targets, which it says was promised back in 2018.