Carrot or stick? MPs face a big food waste conundrum

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Under the watchful gaze of MPs, supermarket bosses will next month need to explain what they are doing to reduce the UK’s food waste mountain. Their evidence will form part of the environment, food and rural affairs committee (Efra) inquiry into food waste, launched in July to tackle the UK’s 8 million tonnes of food waste. But even before the evidence sessions start, it has become clear what an uphill battle the committee faces.

Written evidence to the inquiry, obtained by The Grocer, shows a vast chasm between different sides in the debate and doubts over Efra’s approach. So can the inquiry, due to report in the spring, come up with the answers needed?

One of the biggest questions is whether MPs are even looking in the right place to begin with.

FareShare is questioning why the committee is not investigating manufacturers, when four months ago Wrap said 1.7 million tonnes of food was wasted in the supply chain, 0.9 million of which was avoidable. “While the spotlight is often on the supermarkets, the majority of food waste occurs at the manufacturing, processing or distribution stages,” says FareShare CEO Lindsay Boswell, who is calling on MPs to extend the scope of the inquiry.

Other doubts focus on whether the focus should be on mandatory or voluntary action. Feedback, the group led by campaigner Tristram Stuart, wants mandatory reporting from all supermarkets on their food waste levels – as well as a new UK-wide food waste reduction target.

Stuart says voluntary agreements like Courtauld have let many food companies “off the hook”. The fact no companies have followed Tesco’s “impressive lead” in disclosing food waste levels shows a voluntary approach is not adequate, he says. “The government should introduce legislation that makes public reporting of food waste data mandatory for food businesses over a particular size, including data on supply chains.”

However, industry groups including the ACS, BRC and FDF are against regulation. “Voluntary approaches based upon collaborative working across supply chains are the most effective measures for tackling food waste,” says the FDF in its evidence, adding initiatives like Courtauld have “provided a ‘safe space’ for collaboration”. Wrap estimates since 2011 the grocery supply chain has achieved a 200,000 tonne reduction in food waste in total under Courtauld 2 and 3.

With Courtauld 2025 aiming for a further 20% reduction in food waste in the UK by 2025, industry groups say now is not the time for the big stick.

Few would disagree that the UK’s food waste problem requires urgent action. But given the entrenched positions of its witnesses, whether Efra can achieve a breakthrough, or get anything significant done, is already a matter of some serious doubt. 

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