Supermarkets always seem to take the rap for food waste, whether it’s with the media, politicians (aka Cor-bin-omics) or punters. So it was reassuring to see Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s documentary didn’t simply blame food waste on Tesco et al.
Removing items from the carrier bags of shoppers as they exited a store - and throwing them in the bin to save them the bother a few days later - HFW illustrated dramatically (and alarmingly to the shoppers) the shameful waste in today’s throwaway culture. And in an unlikely stint as a refuse collector in which the old Etonian inspected the garbage, he also made it clear how both precious and ill-equipped the modern consumer is to use scraps up, with goods routinely thrown away even before their sell-by date.
But the villain of the piece was nevertheless a supermarket. Morrisons even made KFC look like the good guys. And they’re throwing away one million chickens a year.
Exhibit one in HFW’s excoriating prosecution of Morrisons was a 20 tonne truckload of unwanted parsnips, supplied by the Hammonds, a desperate and unusually open family of farmers. Some parsnips were too big. Some were too small. Some weren’t straight enough. But there really wasn’t a lot wrong with them. They certainly weren’t the gnarled and twisted parnips I used to pull out of my (long since abandoned) allotment. Yet all were rejected. 280 shopping trolleys per week.
Now I know self-serving customers can be picky over their produce. That’s what Morrisons was pleading in defence on its Facebook page after the programme. It was also pledging to give unsold food waste to local community organisations.
But fine words butter no parsnips. And for a middle-market supermarket to reject 40% of a crop based on such exacting cosmetic standards - and to stick to them in these hard times - is ridiculous. In fact you have to wonder if it’s decisions like this (wasting 40% of a crop) that have landed Morrisons (and their ilk) in such doo doo in the first place. Compare and contrast with Aldi (for example), which has made a virtue of going to M&S suppliers and picking up its perfectly preened seconds on the cheap. I don’t hear many people complain about the quality of Aldi’s produce.
As the documentary unfolded, you feared the worst for the Hammonds, as they were muzzled by the Morrisons PR machine. And right at the end of the programme, it became clear they had gone to the wall. Whether that was because Morrisons pulled the plug on its contract by way of punishment for speaking out or because the already loss-making farmer simply went under was unclear. (The Morrisons press office referred all enquires to its Facebook page.) But one thing is for sure: it wasn’t a great advertisement for JBPs!
The Grocer has regularly exposed “bonkers” restrictions imposed by meddling EU bureaucrats on bananas, cucumbers and eggs (to name but three). But Morrisons - and other supermarkets - need to take a long hard look at the bonkers and shameful levels of waste that occur as a result of some of their own decisions. (In one incident I heard of, a delivery to Morrisons was sent to landfill because it was 20 minutes late.) Cosmetic standards imposed by supermarkets on the basis of received “wisdom” would be a good starting point. In fact, Asda already is on the case. And it’s been so surprised at the consumer’s appetite for ugly potatoes and wonky carrots it’s planning to relax specifications across more produce.
The Grocer will be launching a campaign of its own in the spring in a bid to galvanise the industry to cut waste. If you want to tell us what you’re doing, if you have the will or the way - please let us know.