Counting the Cost of Food Waste, the 75-page report that followed a recent House of Lords inquiry, contains no fewer than 35 recommendations on how to tackle the “shocking” amount of food being wasted across Europe.
But only one attracted headlines, as the UK’s supermarkets were accused of exploiting the primeval consumer urge for a bargain - the notorious bogof - to pass on unwanted food to households. Committee chairman, Baroness Scott of Needham singled out the promotion as a major contributor to the “morally repugnant” 15 million tonnes of waste created in the UK each year.
Lords call for…
Supermarkets to stop bogofs in areas such as fresh food
EU-wide Groceries Supply Code of Practice
more effort to avoid cancelling last-minute orders, which can waste entire crops
Government action including tax breaks to encourage retailers to redistribute unsold food, where safe, for human and animal consumption rather than to be recycled
Wrap cuts rethink
Government to consider reducing on-farm food waste as key objective in CAP
So do supermarkets deserve to be in the dock or has the report and the frenzied coverage that followed missed the point?
The latest figures suggest bogofs are not only a minimal part of the problem, but that retailers are already progressively phasing them out. In 2011 The Grocer revealed a Wrap report suggesting just 4% of people threw more food away when it was bought on special offer, with bogofs represented just 2% of those promotions.
Today’s figure is likely to be even smaller with both Asda and Tesco having canned bogofs on short-lifespan products like salads. “The report seems to completely ignore the actions retailers have already taken,” says BRC director of food, Andrew Opie.
Yet, ironically, it was Tesco’s move last October to come clean on its food waste figures that helped propel food waste and retailers’ role in it up the agenda. Tesco admitted six months into its Using Our Scale for Good campaign that it had generated almost 30,000 tonnes of food waste since the May 2013 launch. The retailer was among those quizzed by the Lords committee and revealed it was considering broadening the self-imposed bogof ban to take in non-salads, admitting there was still uncertainty as to their impact, despite Wrap’s claim. The Grocer understands that Tesco will next month reveal it has slashed thousands of tonnes of waste courtesy of the clampdown.
“Bogofs are an important issue even if they are not the big driver of food waste,” says Will Schreiber, associate director of Best Foot Forward Antithesis, which has been advising Tesco on its project. “What Tesco has done is much wider than that. It has shown that as a retailer it’s taking ownership and the fact Tesco is going public with its figure, despite it being a tiny fraction of the overall food waste problem, shows that.”
In February the BRC revealed a new pledge among leading supermarkets to report sector-level food waste figures for the first time, but other supermarkets failed to follow Tesco’s lead. One major retailer source claims that with retailers and suppliers across Europe unable to even agree on a definition for food waste (another issue highlighted in the Lords’ report), creating, effectively, a supermarket league table on food waste would be misleading and distract from the real issues.
Food waste campaigner Tristram Stuart hotly disputes this view. “Hiding behind a sector-level figure is a Neanderthal attitude. Tesco may have taken the flak when it first came out with these figures but it will also get the praise it deserves if it shows they are coming down. Supermarkets deserve to be in the firing line over food waste,” adds Stuart - although he agrees the issue of bogofs is a red herring.
“I don’t like bogofs because they are used as a tactic to pass the problem of waste on to consumers,” he says. “But this report is being presented by [the media] as EU bureaucrats threatening to ban bogofs, whereas all it is doing is telling supermarkets they need to take ownership of the problem.”
UK a trailblazer
The report estimates that of the 90 million tonnes of food wasted across the EU each year, the UK is responsible for up to 16% - although hugely varying reporting methods place doubt over this figure.
In fact, in many ways, the UK has been a trailblazer in tackling (and defining) waste, with Wrap, which launched its Love Food Hate Waste Campaign in 2007, revealing last year that household food waste had fallen 15% since those days when a “staggering” 22% of all purchases were estimated to have ended up in the waste bin.
But the report raises questions about how long Wrap can continue that work. Not only did it report a “worrying slowdown” in the reduction of food waste figures last year. And Wrap is also reeling from £10m funding cuts by Defra, including £3.6m earmarked for food waste projects.
“There is a high risk of a false economy,” claims the report.
Despite the cuts, which have forced Wrap to look to become a charity, Emma Marsh, head of Love Food Hate Waste, claims all the major supermarkets are “equally committed” to tackling food waste, which will help its ambitious plans for the UK to halve avoidable food waste by 2025 compared with 2007.
BRC environment policy adviser Alice Ellison says this has been ignored by the Lords, while it gives just a cursory mention to the industry’s pioneering Courtauld Agreement, the latest phase of which promises to reduce household food and drink waste by 5% by 2015.
EU efforts fragmented
While UK retailers can point to such landmark projects, the committee describes EU efforts to reduce food waste as ‘fragmented and untargeted’. It calls on the rest of Europe to adopt another UK first, the Groceries Supply Code of Practice model, which it claimed could have a huge impact on reducing food waste by encouraging long-term relationships between suppliers and retailers and reducing incidents such as last-minute cancelled ordered, which can waste entire crops.
And despite her attack on the supermarkets, Baroness Scott acknowledged during the evidence process the pioneering work taking place in the UK: “It occurs to me that, if I [were] a decision-maker at European level, I might look at the UK and say, “Fantastic. They are doing great things. On the other hand, you might look at other countries and say, ’Well, we are going to have to regulate because they are not doing anything.”
The UK doesn’t lead in all areas highlighted in the report, however. Lindsay Boswell, CEO of Britain’s largest food redistribution charity, FareShare, which is seeking to further expand its rapidly growing relationship with Asda, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, welcomes the recommendation that governments look to tax incentives to ensure that if food waste cannot be prevented altogether, it should end up going to humans - or if not livestock - instead of being turned into energy through alternatives such as anaerobic digestion.
“We estimate there is up to 400,000 tonnes of food suitable for human consumption that is being wasted in the UK out of that 15 million total,” he says. “At the moment we are getting just over 5,000 tonnes - enough for a million meals every month.”
Feeding the poor and homeless, he adds - not EU or House of Lords plans to scupper supermarket bogofs - is the bigger issue.