As Dr Julian Parfitt, one of the world’s leading authorities on food waste, was compiling his landmark report for Wrap on food waste in the UK’s grocery supply chain, he did not expect to meet with much resistance. So he was astonished to find doors literally slammed in his face.
“I’m not naming names but when it came to some companies, including some big names, there was a real struggle to get them to take part,” says Parfitt, former special adviser to the 2014 House of Lords inquiry on food waste. “For some it took five or six calls and then there would be various excuses as to why they couldn’t make the meeting for one reason or another.”
“Once I drove all the way to East Anglia only to be told I was not welcome,” he adds. “You would think that for such a massive issue as food waste all would be on board. But obviously not.”
“When it came to some companies, including some big names, there was a real struggle to get them to take part”
Dr Julian Parfitt
Today The Grocer is launching a major campaign - Waste Not Want Not - to try and change that. We want to unite the industry, both retailers and manufacturers, to help reduce the huge amount of food waste identified in Parfitt’s report.
A failure to do so currently costs the UK food and drink industry a staggering £1.9bn in lost sales a year, according to Wrap’s research, with 1.9 million tonnes of food wasted along the supply chain in 2014/15 alone.
Of that amount a whopping 1.1 million tonnes, or 56%, was avoidable. But “building on efforts made to date” within the industry Wrap believes both the retail and manufacturing sectors have a huge opportunity to slash these numbers. With proper waste prevention measures in place there is the potential to reduce avoidable food waste across the grocery sector by 42%, or 450,000 tonnes, by 2025, it says, saving the industry billions.
See also: How to pledge your support for our campaign
And that’s not all. As the report reveals, a mere 1.8% of total food waste and surplus is currently being redistributed to poor and needy people in the UK, either via charities such as FareShare or commercial routes such as Company Shop. Not all food surplus and waste can be eaten of course (and the report sheds new light on the huge amount of inedible waste water and materials occurring in the supply chain) but it estimates that around 270,000 tonnes of waste (or 525 million meals) was in fact edible produce fit for human consumption. At the moment 223,000 tonnes of perfectly edible food is either binned, sent for animal feed or turned into renewable energy via anaerobic digestion rather than finding its way on to people’s plates.
Industry has taken some positive steps already. According to the report, retailers and manufacturers last year diverted 47,000 tonnes of edible unsold food to people, the equivalent of 91 million meals a year. Of that around 30,000 tonnes was processed by Company Shop, via both its commercial arm and social supermarket venture Community Shop; 10,000 was redistributed via FareShare; and the remaining 7,000 by smaller redistribution charities. But as Wrap director of sustainable food systems Dr Richard Swannell points out: “That still means there’s a vast amount of food that could have been fed to people, or animals, or avoided in the first place.
The Grocer’s plan to redistribute 100 million more meals by 2018:
The UK food and drink industry has taken great strides forward in redistributing surplus food to both charities such as FareShare and FoodCycle and commercial outlets like Company Shop. In 2014/15 retailers and manufacturers redistributed 47,000 tonnes of edible produce. That’s the equivalent of 91 million meals. But we think it could do better. Which is why we’ve set a target for the industry to more than double that figure to 100,000 tonnes a year by 2018, the next time Wrap plans to track progress. These 53,000 extra tonnes would provide the redistribution sector with an additional 100 million meals, taking the total number of meals that are redistributed to 191 million.
Based on expert guidance, The Grocer believes we can nearly double current rates of redistribution to 100,000 tonnes of food - or 100 million additional meals a year - by the time Wrap revisits these figures in 2018. But, as the report makes clear, there is plenty more companies need to do if they are to have any chance of hitting that target.
So how can these targets be hit? On the retail side last year only 5,000 tonnes was redistributed to people from the 240,000 tonnes of food surplus and waste that occurred in the sector. The biggest factors behind this waste, says the report, are products left unsuitable for selling due to damage, or those past ‘use by’ and ‘sell by dates’. But opportunities are sometimes lost by the redistribution sector itself in failing to understand and review policies on accepting food beyond ‘best before’ dates where there is no food safety risk and where the quality is still acceptable, the report claims.
Major grocers also continue to announce new food waste initiatives. For example Tesco’s announcment in March that it was committing to a rollout of its Community Food Connection with FareShare FoodCloud is expected to redirect millions of meals from Tesco surplus food to charity by the end of 2017. In November last year Morrisons committed to divert all surplus food to charity via a partnership with local FoodCycle hubs. And both Sainsbury’s and Asda have continued to extend their longstanding commitments with FareShare and FoodCycle to redistribute unsold produce. Other initiatives in play include greater efforts to sell so-called ‘wonky’ fruit and veg.
“All retailers are committed to reducing food waste,” says Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium. “It makes commercial sense and is the best way to reduce our environmental impact.” Equally grocers know they need to do more “not only to cut waste but also redistribute surplus food.” They’re committed to extending their work with charities and are central to the implementation of Wrap’s Courtauld 2025, he adds.
Unveiled in March the commitment is Wrap’s third phase for Courtauld and includes a stretching pledge to slash food and drink waste by 20% by 2025.
But the voluntary commitment is much vaguer when it comes to the issue of food redistribution and only asks signatories to pledge to “make best use of remaining waste and surplus food”.
See also: Tesco’s Community Food Connection redistribution programme helping to reduce waste
The Grocer is asking for more specific commitments. Alongside our target to redistribute an additional 100 million meals by 2018 we want supermarkets and manufacturers to be more transparent about waste. This week Tesco’s report and accounts detailed a 4% increase in food waste to 59,400 tonnes. While other retailers have fed their figures into the wider report collected by the BRC, Parfitt believes that full disclosure is a crucial step in the journey towards waste reduction and greater food redistribution.
“I’ve had unparalleled access to the bottom-up data of the top three grocery retailers and what I’ve seen convinces me that when it comes to retail there’s not such a very big ask to upscale this work,” says Parfitt. “I’m hopeful there will be a breakthrough with a bit more transparency in reporting.”
Co-ordinated action across the industry
But we’re not only looking to supermarkets. We want to help achieve co-ordinated action across the industry uniting both retailers and manufacturers.
On the manufacturing side Wrap’s findings have proved most contentious. Food waste in the grocery manufacturing supply chain reached 1.7 million tonnes last year, according to its findings. Dairy products were the worst offenders accounting for 23% of that figure, or 200,000 tonnes. Close behind was meat, fish and poultry at 18% (160,000 tonnes) and ambient goods at 15% (130,000 tonnes).
On the surface that looks like a major improvement on the 3.9 million tonnes Wrap estimated in 2011. But one reason is that far more waste than previously thought is made up of non-food output, such as water, soil and stones.
The report also points out the significant volumes of food surplus that are unsuitable for redistribution, particularly in sectors such as meat. The value of these products has led manufacturers to find alternate buyers, says Parfitt, such as restaurants or discount food firms like Approved Food.
Experts on the redistribution side counter that Wrap’s figures are conservative. “Out of necessity of costs and time there’s a relatively high degree of self-declaration in the food industry that’s helped them extrapolate these figures,” says Fareshare CEO Lindsay Boswell.
“Whilst we completely understand that budgets and time pressures mean the sensible way of coming to these figures is through self-declaration, it is likely to slightly suppress the numbers.”
The report does acknowledge that in many cases the figures for avoidable waste in the supply chain were subject to “limitations and uncertainties”. As well as the challenges posed by the lack of access to information from some parts of the sector there was the logistical impossibility of precisely measuring waste in an industry made up of thousands of small and medium-sized enterprises (SME’s). But the report combines data from national bodies such as the Environment Agency, Wrap case studies and other research and new primary data from a range of businesses and trade associations.
But the lower estimates should not be used as an excuse for complacency, warns Parfitt. Instead any disagreement over the figures only serves to highlight the need for greater transparency, better reporting mechanisms and more cooperation between retailers and manufacturers.
“In the manufacturing sector there are some very real barriers, which this report has only served to demonstrate” and “often it’s because they’ve got different priorities” he says. “It’s all about fulfilling contracts and getting orders by the deadline. It’s a chicken and egg situation.”
That’s why the report provides case studies. “Just look at the companies that are doing a good job. It’s often basic organisational stuff,” says Parfitt. “It can be as simple as improving understanding among staff of the sorts of surplus suitable for redistribution or how to partner up with local charitable or commercial organisations.
Data is important too, he says. “If you’ve got better data that maps the losses, then you become more efficient.” But reporting lines are also crucial. “We found a number of examples on our site visits where the person in charge of monitoring waste was also in charge of health and safety. There is obviously a potential clash of priorities there and the sites that had some dedicated resource were far more on top of the problem.”
Parfitt adds: “Clearly this report is a starting point, it’s not the final picture. Our discussions with the redistribution sector have shown just how contentious an area it is. But I think it will put the focus on the extra effort that is needed. The overall message goes back to the fact that it’s not about blame, it’s about businesses being better informed.
And sector experts agree the report lays the groundwork for future progress. “We’ve been calling for years for there to be a number placed out there because until you measure it, nobody does anything about it,” says Boswell. “We’ve been very uncomfortable that the only number out there has been one based only on the experience of a little old charity called FareShare.
“We think the figure is probably more but that’s slightly dancing on the head of a pin. They’ve shown it’s a heck of a lot and what we’d love to do is work with the food industry and The Grocer campaign to try and really create a culture change.”
His comments are echoed by Tom Rumboll, commercial director of Company Shop. “This week’s report is the most detailed study we have ever seen on food surplus and food waste, which is a result of many months of hard work and collaboration across the supply chain to piece together all of the data.
“Studies can always go further and drill down into more detail, but this is a good first step and provides us with a platform to reignite the discussion about food waste and an impetus to pull together as a sector to ensure that more food surplus is prevented from becoming waste.”
Tim Rycroft, corporate affairs director at the Food & Drink Federation, welcomed what he described as “more detailed estimates” and said that the federation viewed avoiding food waste as a “key pillar” of its work.
“FDF members fully understand the importance of reducing avoidable food waste across the whole supply chain in order to deliver sustainable growth and improve resource efficiency,” he says.
And Wrap’s Swannell welcomes The Grocer’s call for the industry to move faster, adding that the charity plans to update the findings of this week’s report every two years to track progress.
“This reports sets a benchmark for reporting on food waste, which as far as I’m aware is not happening anywhere else in the world,” he says.
“What we have shown is that we have a very efficient sector but there is also huge scope for us to become more efficient and frankly to become world-leading. The Grocer is the voice of the sector and can be very influential in delivering the best outcome.”
‘Achievable but challenging’
Meanwhile Parfitt describes The Grocer’s campaign aim to more than double the number of meals redistributed as “realistic and achievable” but “challenging”.
Much, he says, will depend on whether the government can be persuaded to provide fiscal incentives for retailers and manufacturers to level the playing field on redistribution compared with other routes for food surplus, such as anaerobic digestion.
We agree. That’s why our campaign calls for the government to incentivise the industry to redistribute edible food, in the same way it has offered cash incentives for anaerobic digestion.
While we welcome the use of anaerobic digestion where food surplus is unfit for humans and agree it should be prioritised above landfill, top of the waste hierarchy should be redistribution to people.
Even Philip Simpson, commercial director at anaerobic digestion provider ReFood agrees. “There needs to be a strong hierarchy in place that prioritises the reuse and value of food waste,” he says. “Reducing this waste must be a priority - whether by working with the supply chain, redistribution charities, sending surplus food to animal feed companies or generating renewable energy as a last resort.”
FareShare has long campaigned for government to create a “level playing field” after the success in European neighbours such as France (see feature p30-33). “AD is alchemy, it’s fantastic - I love it,” says Boswell. “But because it is so much easier for a food business to send it into AD than it is to divert to us the government has created a skew.”
For Baroness Scott, who led the Lords inquiry on food waste in 2014, progress on all these issues will rely on greater transparency across the industry. “I’m not so naïve that I don’t recognise difficulties around commercial sensitivities and reputational damage,” she says.
“I just think unless there is more transparency it’s difficult to see how we’ll make the step change we need to. I think that’s absolutely the right goal.”
On top of that “the data problem is just huge because there’s no reliable benchmarking really as it stands,” she adds. “There is something about us taking a lead on that because I think we can and it would be of immense value that we have proper evidence-based decision making going forward, not just to us but as an exemplar in Europe and further afield.”
Industry has taken significant steps in pushing food waste up the agenda already but campaigns such as The Grocer’s can help to provide a focus, she says.
“What we found wherever we took evidence was that once people start to think about it, they do something about it, it’s a natural reaction, and the big problem we’ve had is all of us stopped thinking about it.
“The question for me is how you keep pressure up. Some of that is about bottom line: where retailers have evidence that improving their supply chain is a sensible business move they’ll keep doing it. But you need campaigning groups to keep holding them to account. We do need to keep their feet to the fire.”
Over the next months and years The Grocer wants to drive crucial progress through detailed analysis of the major challenges facing the industry, identifying solutions, facilitating dialogue, tracking progress toward our targets, and celebrating the achievements of all players - big or small - along the supply chain in putting an end to the moral scandal of food waste.
“Food waste is not just an environmental issue,” says The Grocer’s editor Adam Leyland. “It is a moral issue. We understand waste is part of life. No-one in the industry likes wasting food. But there’s a huge amount of perfectly edible food and drink that is either incinerated or goes to landfill, and that cannot be right. The food and drink industry is in a unique position to effect positive change. And it needs to redouble its efforts not only to reduce waste, in line with Courtauld 2025 targets, but to prioritise food redistribution wherever humanly possible.
“We want the industry to work towards the goal that any edible food - that cannot be sold by retailers and manufacturers for whatever reason - should be used to feed people ahead of any other purpose. And we want the government to incentivise the industry, so that even where it is not the easiest option, at least there is not a financial penalty for doing the right thing.”
Both retailers and suppliers have shown in recent months and years they can make huge strides in tackling food waste, which will not only make their businesses much more efficient but help to transform lives.
Adds Leyland: “The Grocer will continue this campaign until we reach our target of doubling the amount of food redistributed to hungry people, encouraging, chivvying, inspiring, shaming, supporting and above all uniting the industry behind a campaign that will not only save billions of pounds, but help feed poor and hungry people too.”