We need action against supermarket food waste

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Food wastage in the UK is a growing problem and part of a greater global pandemic. In the UK alone last year there was 15 million tonnes of food wasted by supermarkets, industry and consumers at the cost of an eye-watering £5bn. The supermarket chain Tesco’s alone wasted 30,000 tonnes of food in the first six months of 2013. It’s time that we realised that perhaps Bob Geldof making a Christmas number one with his chums isn’t quite enough to feed the world.

Firstly, supermarket chains know and abuse the power they have over suppliers, and do not bother making accurate estimates of the quantities of food they need for the coming year. This way, contract-dependent suppliers often find themselves throwing away huge amounts of surplus food when supermarkets decide to revise their estimates, as this is cheaper than harvesting and selling the surplus.

Secondly, although the vast selection we see on the shelves of supermarkets seems natural to us, this is actually an illusion of cornucopia designed by the industry. This encourages customers to buy more than they need, which itself can incur some waste. It also means that items at the back of the shelf merely help to sell those sitting at the front, rather than being sold themselves. This further adds to food wastage.

Supermarket chains know and abuse the power they have over suppliers, and do not bother making accurate estimates of the quantities of food they need for the coming year.

Supermarkets have become extremely selective over which products make it to store due to the fact that consumers have become accustomed to purchasing fruit and vegetables based on aesthetic ideals. In April 2011, Tesco rejected a crop of cauliflowers from one of their suppliers because they were “too big for their shelves”. Earlier this year, French supermarket giant Intermarché decided to go against the grain by offering customers the choice of misshapen vegetables with an attractive 30% discount. At first, there wasn’t much interest, so Intermarché produced soups and juices using the products that would otherwise be thrown away. As soon as consumers were reassured that the taste of the food was identical, the store sold out entirely.

 

French supermarket Intermarché launched their waste-saving initiative earlier this year
French supermarket Intermarché launched their waste-saving initiative earlier this year

Health and Safety regulation supermarket chains, driven by profit and shareholder demands, mean that it is very difficult for waste food to be redistributed. This has led to the creation of a grassroots culture of bin raiding, or ‘skipping’ as it is affectionately referred to by its regular perpetrators. Intercepted food is kept for personal use, donated to charities who feed those in need, or used by community projects such as Leeds’ own The Real Junk Food Project (TRJFP). Founded in February 2013, TRJFP intercepts perfectly good food and redistributes it to the local community through ‘pay as you feel’ restaurants. Since March 2013, the project has intercepted a staggering 11.8 tonnes of food and served up close to 3,500 meals (as of July 2014). Projects like these are both inspirational and critically important to changing consumer attitudes towards food wastage, but ultimately only scratch the surface of the vast rotting pool of food waste in the UK.

More action is needed from both the British government and the supermarkets themselves. Both Waitrose and Nandos in Leeds have agreed to donate their waste produce to TRJFP following the signing of contracts that absolves them from food poisoning liability. These are positive steps, but rather than see supermarkets sporadically give permission to charities and others to access their waste food, we need greater corporate responsibility from the large chains across the board. The debate as to whether supermarkets should allow people access to their bins is not the one we should be having: the supermarkets should ensure the bins aren’t full in the first place.

David Webster 

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