Pass the parcel on food waste

MPs say it’s retailers’ problem but the industry says households need to do more. Is it time for the government to step in? By David Burrows.

Hardly a month goes by without another new “wonky vegetable” brand being launched or a partnership between a fast-food chain and a local food redistribution charity. But is the food industry really doing enough to prevent what MPs last month called a “food waste scandal”?

A look at the figures in the report published by the environment, food and rural affairs (EFRA) committee suggests not: 60% of post-farmgate waste could have been avoided. But the big question is how?

Better labelling, mandatory collection schemes, a nationwide reduction target, portion control and a requirement to publish supply chain waste data at a company level are all mooted in the committee’s report.

But industry wants the focus to be on the public and education. Only last week the Foodservice Packaging Association (FPA) claimed politicians had it in for retailers, in particular, with new figures published at EU level showing that 53% of the bloc’s 88m tonnes of food waste arises at household level. At retail level it’s a meagre 5%, while foodservice accounts for a further 12%.

“We very much hope members of the EFRA committee, when studying this infographic, will question why their food waste report’s press release and consequent resulting headlines focused on food waste in the retail sector,” said the FPA executive director, Martin Kersh, as he called for “greater recognition” of the progress made by retailers, manufacturers and caterers.

Forward-thinking firms deserve credit, but in the 40-odd page report by the cross-party group of MPs only one retailer was offered a pat on the back. “We commend Tesco for publishing its food waste data from across the supply chain,” said the committee’s chair Neil Parish.

Lack of transparency was a key concern for the MPs. Sainsbury’s is moving in the right direction, they said, but generally the supermarkets have been able to hide behind industry-level figures. It’s the same in foodservice and manufacturing, and the waste minister Thérèse Coffey appears in no rush to force a change. WRAP, she suggested, is perfectly capable of dealing with it.

Or is it? The organisation has overseen some decent food waste reductions in recent years (see here for the latest results, including those for the Hospitality and Foodservice Agreement, HaFSA). It’s also a global authority on measuring food waste. But many businesses are yet to be convinced of joining its new platform to make food production and consumption more sustainable.

The EFRA committee heard that a “large number” of food manufacturers had not signed up to the Courtauld 2025 commitment. That WRAP’s budget has been squeezed dry won’t help, nor will the fact that companies don’t have to commit if they don’t want to. Indeed, it’s hardly surprising that the public-facing retailers have been the first to put pen to paper on the voluntary deal. Still, the likes of Starbucks, McDonald’s and Costa are among those still weighing up the merits of the scheme.

And all the while thousands of tonnes of food – much of it perfectly edible – continues to be trucked to landfill. Householders have a significant responsibility but critics have said that voluntary agreements continue to allow businesses to shirk theirs. The government needs to step in, suggested Parish, as he called for a mandatory food waste collection scheme for businesses. Scotland has one already and Coffey is watching developments “with interest”. Watching and waiting won’t wash for much longer, though.

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