Tesco waste

Tesco has admitted tens of thousands of tonnes of food waste it claimed to have eliminated from its operations has secretly been sent to anaerobic digestion, in a revelation that will send shockwaves through the industry.

The supermarket giant, which has led industry calls for transparency on food waste reporting, said the discovery came as a result of an audit carried out towards the end of last year. It told The Grocer it had “terminated” the contract of its food waste processor.

“Transparency has been key to driving our food waste reduction progress,” a Tesco spokesperson told The Grocer.

“That’s why we support food waste reporting and being held to account for our progress, but also why we are upfront when we uncover an issue such as with animal feed.”

Tesco has not named the company involved, but an investigation is said to be ongoing.

However, the impact on its food waste figures is huge, with the supermarket today correcting its food waste reduction figure across its group operations from a claimed fall of 45% from 2016/17 to 2022/3, to just 18%.

Tesco reported more than 35,000 tonnes of food waste in the UK last year.

Zero food waste to landfill

It has led supermarkets in its record on food waste, having hit the milestone of sending zero food waste to landfill in 2009.

The discovery is a major embarrassment to Tesco CEO Ken Murphy, who in September sent a message to a summit of world business leaders in New York that politicians needed to regain their focus on tackling food waste.

At the event the previous year, it was announced it was accelerating its plans to halve its operations’ food waste by 2025, five years ahead of the Champions 12.3 and UN target. 

“We have terminated our relationship with our food waste processor in the UK, following an internal review which showed that food which we believed was being processed for animal feed was in fact going to anaerobic digestion,” said Claire Lorains, Tesco group quality, technical and sustainability director.

“While anaerobic digestion can have a role in recovery of energy and avoids food going to landfill, under the food waste hierarchy, we count food going to anaerobic digestion as waste.

“Removing animal feed from our reported numbers for 2022/23 would result in a group food waste reduction of 18% against our baseline, significantly lower than our previously reported reduction of 45%.

“As we had worked with our former processor over a number of years, we believe it is right to exclude animal feed from our data. We are therefore withdrawing our previously reported food waste data, and we expect our reduction this year will be similarly affected.”

Ambition unchanged

However, Lorains claimed Tesco’s ambition to halve food waste was “unchanged” by today’s revelation.

“We are now reviewing our plans and putting in place the building blocks to return us to where we want to be on waste reduction and over the coming months,” she said.

“We will share our actions to help us make progress towards our target.”

She also said unsold food donated to community groups and shared with colleagues through its Colleague Shop in the UK was unaffected, as was the progress it was making to halve food waste elsewhere in the group.

“We will publish our latest position, which will be based on the result achieved at the end of the current financial year, as part of our usual reporting cycle,” said Lorains.