No more messing on food waste

Foodservice companies have been reticent to publish food waste data but soon they might have to. David Burrows reports on proposed new reporting regulations.

This time last year, the government’s food waste champion Ben Elliot was the guest on the Footprint40 podcast. He seemed content with the efforts of hospitality and foodservice (HaFS) businesses to reduce food waste but as conversation turned to long-promised regulation to force companies to report on their food waste a wariness crept in. “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.”

It was a fair point given the pain inflicted by the pandemic. But 12 months on and the UK government has decided to make good on its 2018 promise to consult on mandatory reporting of food waste in England. This is red tape that will save companies money, the government said, and will be an important part of achieving net-zero. 

So, what’s the plan and what does it mean for pubs, caterers and restaurants?

The need to reduce food waste requires little introduction but foodservice and hospitality businesses have struggled to get to grips with it. Food waste across the sector is responsible for 3.6MtCO2e – about 10% of total food waste emissions in the UK. Some 1.1 million tonnes is thrown away every year (including from wholesale), far less than that from households (6.6 million tonnes) but far more than the levels in retail (277,000 tonnes). In order to reach the SDG 12.3 target – to halve, by 2030, per capita global food waste at consumer and retail levels – total food waste in HaFS needs to fall to 685,000 tonnes, according to Wrap

The UK is over half way towards that but progress has slowed. Not enough businesses are taking action on food waste, said Defra, citing “limited progress” due to a “lack of awareness around food waste, a lack of incentive and a lack of confidence in [businesses’] capabilities to measure food waste robustly”. Its consultation suggests two new approaches. 

Voluntary void

Option one involves an enhanced approach to voluntary agreements – a move that certainly won’t wash with NGOs. According to the food system charity Feedback, 15 or so years of such agreements has led to fewer than 10% of major food businesses committing to full transparency on their food waste figures. 

The latest initiative, the food waste reduction roadmap led by Wrap, now has 197 businesses in England measuring their food waste. The target is to reach 238 by 2026 but an impact assessment published alongside the government’s consultation suggests that, even in Wrap’s wildest dreams, sign ups will be nowhere near the 509 firms mandatory regulations would capture. 

There is a particular gap in HaFS. Wrap data shows that roadmap signatories represent just 13% of the sector by turnover, which means only 54,858 tonnes of the 426,206 tonnes of food waste produced by large HaFS businesses in England is captured under the programme. By comparison, 88% of retailers and 48% of food manufacturers are signed up.

Catering firm WSH has been reporting its food waste since 2014, a move that has saved millions, for both the business and its clients, and helped to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “By segregating, weighing and reporting in some format you’ll reduce your food waste by around 20%,” says director of sustainability Mike Hanson. He finds it “incredible” that more businesses are not doing this, noting that we are now 10 years on from the hospitality and foodservice agreement on food waste and yet there are still “an awful lot of companies not reporting to Wrap. I think there has got to be some legislation [on food waste],” he adds. “We haven’t got time to be messing about here.” 

Read the consultation and there is little doubt the government agrees. Option two, to “require food waste measurement and reporting for large food businesses”, dominates the consultation. The proposal is to bring this requirement into force in April 2024, with the first set of data due within three months of the end of the 2024/25 financial year. This will be made publicly available and scrutinised by the Environment Agency (as well as campaigners, no doubt).

Big stick

Lawyers suggest the proposals largely mirror other reporting requirements like the Energy Saving opportunity Scheme (ESOS) and modern slavery statements, but the regulator in this case is being given a bigger stick with which to whack non-compliant firms. 

That’s because the reporting requirement will come via an amendment to the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016. As such, production of food waste will be classified as a “regulated facility” under the regulations, but companies would register an exemption. “Failure to register your exemption if it's required – and failure to comply with your exemption once registered – is a criminal offence,” Anita Lloyd, director at Squire Patton Boggs, told Ends Report. This is different from other reporting requirements in which failure to report results in civil sanctions. 

The food waste reporting requirements are not weighty, however. Data points include the overall tonnage of food waste, as well as where it ends up. Food waste as a percentage of food produced or purchased and sold would also have to be reported. A number of large businesses are already doing this. Those that aren’t will need to update their IT (which will cost a total of £5.6m across all businesses in scope, the government estimates) and employ the services of consultants to check the data (costing an average of £684 per business). 

Foodservice companies have traditionally been nervous about reporting because of fears their data are not robust enough (Wrap has in turn struggled to gather an accurate picture of HaFS food waste). Hanson says consistency is key, and that businesses should expect some initial hiccups in the data. 

When figures for food waste started to drop into his inbox in the first few months of 2014 they were “clearly wrong”, Hanson continues, but gradually they began to creep up as staff began to realise this was not an exercise they’d be criticised for. Make it simple and make sure people are not worried about what they’re reporting, he adds: “I’m not necessarily tracking one site against another because they’re all different.” 

This is something those eager to draw up food waste league tables should bear in mind: the challenges facing a caterer providing school meals are very different from a high street fast food chain or indeed a major manufacturer or grocer. 

In the consultation, there is a nod to the potential headaches contract caterers face as businesses that “may not have control over the collection or management of the food waste which occurs on sites where the food is prepared and consumed”. Still, caterers will be obliged to report food waste “regardless of their control of waste management”.

Major move

The inclusion of food delivery platforms like Just Eat, Deliveroo and Uber Eats is less certain. The government suggests voluntary measures are best suited in these cases but have asked for feedback on whether they should be part of the mandatory reporting regime.

Predictably, small and medium-sized firms won’t be in scope. Margins are tight and resources are limited among SMEs, but the government reckons 67% of food waste produced by businesses will still be captured from the 509 firms that will need to report.

Food waste on farms is not within the scope of the reporting requirements – a notable omission given that this amounts to 3.6 million tonnes of food surplus and waste annually (or 7.2% of all food harvested). Wrap has been working with a small group of farmers to help them measure food waste levels but admits there is much to do and many challenges involved in gathering data from such a massive and diverse industry. Tesco has had success working with its suppliers on food waste (80 to 90 suppliers are now reporting data too), while WWF and Wrap are currently trying to produce a better estimate of the UK’s on-farm food waste.

Tesco certainly deserves credit for presenting its food waste data for a number of years – and pushing others to follow its lead. That such a large food retailer has confidently and comfortably been reporting this data for almost a decade has gone a long way to putting policymakers’ minds at ease, says Julian Parfitt, technical director at Anthesis, a consultancy.

Parfitt has worked with Tesco on its food waste reporting and also produces national food waste statistics for Wrap, including those for HaFS. He thinks it would be a “major achievement” if mandatory reporting on food waste were introduced. Some might grumble about the methodologies needed but those businesses already doing this have shown what’s possible. “If you’re serious about producing food you’ve got to be serious about food waste,” Parfitt says.

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