Nearly 100 food companies have agreed on a system to measure food waste, and are set to start reporting them within a year

It seems contradictory to talk of a turning point in the battle against food waste when 27 of Tesco’s suppliers have just admitted to creating nearly 700,000 tonnes of waste between them in the past year alone.

Yet even some of the industry’s most vehement critics claim events in New York this week are a “game-changer” in the fight for transparency.

On Tuesday, Wrap and the IGD chose the Champions 12.3 event in NYC to announce a new Food Waste Reduction Roadmap. Nearly 100 of the industry’s biggest companies have agreed on a new measurement system and will report their previously secret food waste figures by this time next year. The top 250 are expected to report by 2026.

So how much of a breakthrough moment is this?

The new Roadmap is based on three principles of ‘Target, Measure and Act’. And, on the first two parameters at least, it’s certainly a step change.

The Roadmap’s initial 87 signatories have all thrown their backing behind the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 12.3) of slashing food waste across their own UK operations by 50% by 2030.

It follows growing unease over the ambition of the industry’s previous Courtauld 2025 target, which was limited to a target of 20% by 2025 and left the UK well behind the UN goal.

In October last year, The Grocer reported Tesco’s criticism of the target, joining a raft of NGOs who believed Courtauld did not go far enough.

Dave Lewis: Publishing food waste data can sting – but we must all do so

In fact, it was notable this week that Tesco, whose CEO Dave Lewis chairs the Champions 12.3 group, made its announcements separately to Wrap and the IGD. The retailer appears intent on handling the message of its supplier figures, suggesting some continued tension.

One source said: “It was a bit frustrating because that provided data on a level of magnitude more than we had the day before.”

Wrap CEO Marcus Gover vehemently denies the adoption of the new target is an admission of Courtauld’s weakness.

But it appears the UN goal will increasingly dominate when it comes to target setting.

“The announcement is truly a game-changer for food waste prevention - both in terms of breadth, with so many major food businesses signing up to the challenge, and scope,” says Feedback’s executive director, Carina Millstone. “Crucially, these companies are committing to halving food waste from farm to fork by 2030, including waste in supply chains, and not just the lower-hanging fruit of waste in operations.”

Gover claims the “biggest breakthrough” was to get companies to agree on a new universal system of measurement, following years of wrangling.

When Tesco first decided to publish its food waste figures in 2013, only to be slammed in the national press, senior retail figures at their rivals were openly mocking of how its decision - which they claimed was in pursuit of PR not transparency - had backfired. Yet in November last year, The Grocer revealed the IGD and Wrap had reached agreement with all the other major supermarkets to begin publishing figures after agreeing on a common system.

Are measurements robust?

The fact that has now resulted in the sign-up of dozens of supplier big guns adds huge weight to this week’s announcements. But how robust the new measurement system is seems less certain given the paucity of reliable data.

In its new guidance to support the Roadmap, Wrap says retailers and suppliers should publicly report their own UK waste figures on top of publishing aggregate data with Wrap and other bodies such as the BRC, as has been the much-criticised practice in the past.

It says companies should choose the earliest year for which they have “comparable historical data available”.

Yet because of the lack of data, Wrap says it expects the “vast majority” of businesses to start reporting for the Roadmap based on 2017/18 numbers. And it admits there are “valid reasons why a business may not be in a position to adopt a 50% reduction target” at all.

Feedback called the vagueness over benchmarking “the one big dark cloud hanging over the Roadmap”.

Wrap and IGD have agreed a raft of common recommendations for UK companies in measuring and reporting food waste/surplus data, which they say are consistent with the Food Loss and Waste Accounting and Reporting Standard.

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It has also drawn up additional sector-specific recommendations for companies in retail, hospitality and foodservice, dairy processing, meat processing and fresh produce.

A key part of the process will be new food surplus and waste reporting templates, which businesses will need to supply for Wrap to keep tabs on their progress.

‘Wrap and IGD recognise that initially not all businesses will be in a position to publicly report food waste from their own operations,’ says the Roadmap. ‘Some businesses will require time to embed measurement techniques and build confidence in their data, and Wrap and IGD will provide support for this.’

These include ‘cases where a business has made significant efforts in the past to reduce food waste but cannot fully capture these’, in which case they should develop ‘alternative targets which contribute to SDG 12.3’, that are ‘ambitious and supported’.

Wrap says it will report on progress against the Roadmap milestones in the autumn of 2019, 2022 and 2026, alongside progress towards the Courtauld 2025 targets, with a final report on SDG 12.3 in 2031.

But what about those who have already reported? And does this week’s shocking data from Tesco’s suppliers prove they were right to be worried about sticking their heads above the parapet?

Short-term pain

They show the 27 Tesco own-label suppliers, who agreed a year ago to start reporting, wasted a total of nearly 700,000 tonnes of food in 2017-18.

G’s Fresh, one of Tesco’s largest produce suppliers, recorded the highest percentage of waste among those reporting, with 14.5% of its food (48,730 tonnes) lost. Out of the 22 companies based in the UK, the average was 3.1%. Yet if the data from those 22 was scaled up to the whole of the UK, total food waste would equate to 1.9 megatonnes (Mt), even more than Wrap’s latest estimate for UK manufacture, of 1.85 Mt.

Allied Bakeries claims to have achieved 0% waste, having donated 195 tonnes of food to FareShare centres in 2017.

Writing exclusively for The Grocer this week, Lewis, who revealed 10 major branded suppliers including Mars, Unilever and General Mills have committed to follow in the next 12 months, says the short-term pain is vital to make the changes needed.

This week’s announcements certainly seem to have changed how NGOs regard the industry’s commitment to tackling food waste. It will be interesting to see how long that lasts.