Eight months ago Wrap set new guidance to fight hunger and cut waste – but Sainsbury’s is so far alone in adopting it. What’s stopping the others?

In June last year, food redistribution charities celebrated what they claimed was a pivotal victory in fighting hunger. Supermarkets and suppliers had agreed to rip up “arcane” rules on surplus own-label food, in accordance with new guidance from Wrap.

Backed by all the major supermarkets, the guidance promised to address myriad confusing rules governing own-label products, to allow redistribution to smaller charities.

It was billed as a step towards hitting the targets of the Courtauld Commitment 2025. Yet eight months on, only Sainsbury’s has adopted the new guidance.

“We are working with Wrap on best practice to ensure our food is redistributed and handled in the correct way,” Sainsbury’s told The Grocer.

The lack of engagement elsewhere means only the UK’s two biggest redistribution giants – FareShare and the now Biffa-owned Company Shop Group – are able to redistribute own-label products from all the major retailers.

Foodworks-29 Credit Anisa M Photography

Source: Anisa M Photography

Organisations like Food Works and The Bread and Butter Thing applauded Sainsbury’s for adopting the guidance

Last week, organisations including Food Works and The Bread and Butter Thing, both based in Sheffield, and London-based City Harvest, applauded Sainsbury’s for adopting the new guidance but said it was inexplicable that others hadn’t followed suit.

The Grocer approached supermarkets that have not adopted the guidance, all of whom highlighted the millions of meals being distributed through FareShare and Company Shop.

Tesco’s food surplus operation is the largest of its kind in Europe, having provided 135 million meals to FareShare to date. Tesco stresses it uses FareShare to audit groups receiving food, so has confidence in their safety.

Privately, another supermarket source was more candid about their reservations in widening the net of redistributors. The retailer worked with approved organisations like FareShare and Company Shop because they had a “high level of governance” to ensure food hygiene and safety standards.

Allergy fears

Supermarkets, they said, were particularly worried about allergy labelling. If not subject to rigorous procedures, own-brand food could fall foul of new labelling laws brought in last October, following teenager Natasha Ednan-Laperouse’s fatal reaction to sesame seeds in a Pret a Manger baguette.

The source said it was essential supermarkets felt they had “full traceability over where surplus food goes in case there is a product recall”.

It’s for this reason FareShare CEO Lindsay Boswell defends supermarkets not adopting the guidance. “Supermarkets want to minimise waste and make sure surplus is redistributed to as many people as possible, but most important of all they want this to be safe,” he says. “The whole reason for FareShare existing is that it ensures corporate transparency, traceability and accountability.

Lindsay Boswell

Lindsay Boswell: “Supermarkets want to minimise waste, but most important of all they want this to be safe”

“Every time we redistribute food to one of the 10,000 charities we help, we ensure it is handled so it complies with food standards regulations.”

Boswell says supermarkets “don’t have the capacity to be inundated with lots of different charities and ensure that these charities redistribute safely.

“FareShare has a gateway, which is a logistics operation specifically set up to replicate the standards of the industry.

“We visit our charities, we audit them and we teach them. If there are charities that are saying they can’t get hold of food, they should come to us.”

Company Shop group MD Steph McGinty says its 50 years of experience enables it to “ensure surplus is redistributed effectively and safely”.

She adds: “It is important manufacturers and retailers have choices as to how they redistribute surplus and who they work with, as much as it is important that they are able to choose between receiving a commercial return for doing so, a social return, or both.”

What Wrap says about own-label redistribution  

  • Own-label redistribution policies, which are designed to protect the integrity of retailer brands and product safety, have constrained the options available to own-label manufacturers. As a result, some redistribution organisations are not able to access own-brand food.
  • The issue was identified by the Courtauld Commitment 2025 Redistribution Working Group as a priority barrier to redistribution access.
  • A lack of consistency over individual retailer approaches to redistribution means food can go to waste.
  • Greater consistency and transparency would reduce the burden of redistribution efforts for all retailers.

Source: Wrap, June 2021

Yet Andy Mitchell, senior technical manager at Worldwide Fruit, a global fruit marketing and distribution business, says there is a lack of awareness of redistributors and their capabilities in supermarket c-suites.

“We’ve been working on food redistribution for around two years and have found it incredibly frustrating,” says Mitchell, who is also head of Wrap’s fresh products group and a former fruit category technical manager at Sainsbury’s.

“We still have loads of produce going to animal feed or anaerobic digestion, despite wanting it to be redistributed.

“Supermarkets want to help, but there is a disjointed decision-making process that gets in the way”

“We started working with FareShare and they are very good at taking food surplus in bulk deliveries. But we wanted to work with the Bread and Butter project because they are very good at taking products that you don’t have to decant.

“To do so we had to get permission from the supermarkets and it’s been a nightmare. They want to help, but there is a disjointed decision-making process that gets in the way.

“I just don’t think the people at the top realise the diversity of food redistributors out there.”

One such charity is UK Harvest, whose COO Liz Woodsell tells The Grocer she struggles to explain the supermarkets’ lack of action. “One major producer said we want to give you our surplus but can’t because retailers won’t let us.”

Misplaced concerns

Woodsell says her charity, which supports a further 330 charities across the south, operates a fleet of seven refrigerated vans equipped to transport chilled food, and safety concerns are misplaced.

This view is echoed by David Carter, CEO of City Harvest London, which operates 17 Mercedes chilled trucks.

“With Natasha’s Law this is a big issue, but I would like to think all supermarkets will look at what Sainsbury’s has done and follow suit.”

David Carter-CEO-City Harvest - logo_

David Carter: “I would like to think all supermarkets will look at what Sainsbury’s has done and follow suit”

Wrap is not alone in seeking to tackle this issue. Last year IGD launched a new online hub to flag up the array of food redistribution groups operating in the UK.

The initiative is led by Mark Little, its director of health and sustainability programmes. “We support increased redistribution of any surplus,” he says.

“We are supportive of the Wrap guidance and the point we make is that redistribution organisations have processes in place to manage these risks.”

However, one food redistribution source tells The Grocer the project is proving something of a “damp squib”.

“It’s going to take much more than a website to solve this,” says the source. “We need supermarkets to realise the extent of the food being wasted, and act now.”