BIG RETAILERS have been battered by the storm over food waste. Distributing surplus stocks to food banks can tackle the crisis and make a huge difference to the UK’s poorest. By Carrie Lorton and Adam Read.
The House of Lords has published its extensive assessment of Europe’s food waste crisis. Some 90m tonnes are being thrown away – a figure the chair of the subcommittee leading the inquiry called “morally repugnant”. Baroness Scott called for urgent action across the continent and domestically. Supermarkets were urged to do “much more” to cut waste right along the food chain.
The supermarkets have been at the centre of the food waste storm. Whether it is complaints about their use of buy-one-get- one-free offers which blatantly encourage consumers to buy more than they can eat; our own poor household management (or our lifestyles getting in the way) resulting in food being thrown away; or the wastage that occurs in the supply chain between farm and supermarket (including “ugly” produce), food retailers have often been labelled as the problem. But this also makes them a big part of the solution.
One of the areas where they could do much more is food redistribution. The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) recently produced figures on food waste arisings, reporting 6.5m tonnes of waste in the grocery retail supply chain, of which 3.9m tonnes is direct from food and drink manufacturers. This is pre-consumer wastage.
With food prices and living costs rising, alarming numbers of the UK public now rely on food banks. The Debt Advisory Centre has said 6% of UK adults had to pay for food on credit in July 2013. And it is estimated that 20% of the food used by charities to feed the UK hungry is received from stores either as waste or through a third party which diverts surplus food to charities before it ends up as waste.
Given these statistics, it’s no surprise that retailers and politicians are being asked why more vulnerable people can’t benefit from better management of surplus food. So what is being done?
The responsibility of supermarkets to address surplus food waste has been a topic of debate in the UK since Kerry McCarthy’s private member’s bill in 2012. McCarthy proposed three main legislative changes: supermarkets and manufacturers to have a legal obligation to donate surplus food to designated charities; other businesses and public bodies to be encouraged to do the same; and the development of a UK version of the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act in the US to protect those involved from any liabilities.
After the introduction of McCarthy’s bill, DEFRA gave WRAP the task of undertaking the UK’s first quantitative research on the subject, initiating the Food Connection Programme, a trial to develop relationships and best practice between big retailers and the charity sector. Ricardo-AEA was contracted by WRAP to support this initiative, collect data and report back on the work, the findings of which were published in April.
The research found that while the amount of surplus food available at store level is small compared with the whole supply chain, it is enough to be of real benefit to those who need it (see graphic). The report also highlights that the barriers to rolling out redistribution from stores nationwide are still significant due to capacity and resource limitations affecting both charities and retailers.
However, the Food Connection Programme has identified a number of “quick-win” recommendations for retailers (see boxout), while the Industry Working Group has developed and published a range of good practice case studies that should encourage the industry to take action on surplus food redistribution across the supply chain, prioritise waste prevention and communicate internally and externally their approach to redistribution.
Despite the at times David-and-Goliath nature of the players involved, there is a real opportunity for both the retail and charity sectors, working in partnership, to bring about a big change in the number and scope of surplus food redistribution networks and solutions, from local to regional and national schemes.
Although the direct effect on waste diversion tonnages, and thus costs, may be modest the reputational gains for the retailers could be huge. The report’s findings may be the call to arms that gets surplus food redistribution advancing.
This is a field where the media, the public and the retail sector can get involved, and where charities are delivering solutions. The momentum is really building.
Quick wins in war on food waste
- Undertake a waste audit to understand what surpluses are regularly occurring and why
- Review your organisation’s policies around surplus food redistribution or use the Guiding Principles to Food Redistribution to help develop an appropriate policy
- Identify local charities or hubs that could take your surpluses and invite them in for an initial chat
- Work with your preferred charity to develop a Service Level Agreement and use the tools and resources in the Food Connection Programme to help set up the relationship and service
- Communicate and celebrate the success of your redistribution work and the positive effect on local communities as well as in terms of financial savings and environmental benefits