Waste figures published by Tesco this week - including the revelation that 68% of its bagged salad ends up being chucked out - brought food waste back to the top of the news agenda again.
Tesco announced it was using insights gleaned from analysing wastage on 25 KVIs to reexamine promotions in its fresh produce aisle, but fighting food waste is not just about highly perishable foods. Far too many nonperishable items never find their way on to plates purely because they are close to or just past their best-before dates.
“If you have a level playing field it removes some of the social stigma”
Dan Cluderay, Approved Food
In Greece, the government last month introduced a specific law setting out how supermarkets and other food retailers should sell such food items. Given Greece’s economic problems, this is clearly not just about reducing food waste: cash-strapped households getting access to heavily discounted foods in a safe and transparent manner is just as important a consideration.
But with food poverty and use of food banks also soaring in this country, could the Greek model help the UK tackle food waste and food poverty?
From a legal perspective, there is nothing stopping UK retailers from following their Greek counterparts: best-before dates are indications of quality rather than safety (and apply only to non perishable goods), and the sale of foods past their best-before date is allowed under existing rules - it’s simply a commercial decision for the retailer.
That’s why specialist outfits such as Approved Food already sell out-of-date foods in the UK. Founder Dan Cluderay says Greek-style rules for the sale of out-of-date foods would help more consumers buy them with confidence. “If you have a law that creates a level playing field for everyone - and makes it official - it removes some of the social stigma attached to buying out-of-date foods,” he adds.
The new Greek law at a glance
Introduced on 1 September, the law creates a legal framework for Greek retailers to sell foods past their best-before date. It specifies such food items must be sold in a separate, clearly marked area of the store, and at a discount.
It also sets out for how long out-of-date foods can be sold: up to one week beyond the best-before date, if the date is given as a day and a month up to one month if it is a month and a year and up to three months if it is indicated by year only.
Crucially, it doesn’t change the legality of selling out-of-date foods - existing EU rules, which apply in all member states, already allow foods to be sold beyond their best-before dates, as long as they are safe and consumers are informed clearly about what they are buying. The Greek law simply formalises how this is to be done, and creates a level playing field for Greek retailers and clarity for consumers.
Highly perishable foods - which carry use-by dates - are not affected by the law.
However, so far the appetite from the mults is muted - in fact, although all have waste reduction programmes and many work with food charities such as FareShare, none currently sells food beyond its best-before date. “It’s our policy to help our customers live well for less and exceed their expectations for healthy, safe, fresh and tasty food by ensuring that all the food we sell is in date,” says a Sainsbury’s spokeswoman. The Co-operative, meanwhile, says it has strict guidelines for the disposal of food waste, “mainly because of potential health risks posed by people consuming products that may have gone past their best-before or use-by dates”.
Cluderay argues retailers shouldn’t be scared of complaints about quality. Complaints to Approved Food are hardly ever to do with quality - “it’s all normal internet stuff about where’s my order” - but he can see why reputational risk must be a consideration. Unlike shoppers who specifically seek out the likes of Approved Food, the general public’s knowledge of how best-before dates differ from use-by dates is still poor, and “what supermarket wants to be known as the one that sells out-of-date stuff?” he says.
Better consumer education about date labels - and the gradual phasing out of the particularly confusing display-until and sell-by dates - will go some way to addressing this, but Mark Varney, director of food at FareShare, offers another reason for caution: he’d much rather keep the food waste debate focused on the thousands of tonnes of in-date food that currently go to waste. “We have great, embedded processes to redistribute food with manufacturers like Nestlé and Gerber and retailers such as Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s, but would like to develop those processes with many more.”
However, implementing such processes and improving supply chains to cut waste costs money - might a simple policy change in favour of out-of-date foods not be a less daunting option for some? Varney is unconvinced. Redistributing in-date food to FareShare costs a maximum of £40 per pallet, he says, “and that could come down to as little as £10 if people collaborate along the supply chain. I can’t believe that would be too much cost to bear.”
He is similarly sceptical about the argument that the sale of out-of-date foods in supermarkets could be an alternative to food banks for disadvantaged households. FareShare has a strict policy not to accept out-of-date items because its customers are given cooked meals rather than handed groceries to prepare at home, and therefore cannot choose if they are comfortable eating out-of-date ingredients. “Plus, it does smack of second-class food for second-class people,” he says.
No one would want to risk creating this impression, and discussions about selling foods past their best-before dates clearly must not distract from existing efforts to reduce waste or from the important work of organisations like FareShare. But many consumers already routinely shop the reduced aisles of supermarkets to pick up foods that are just about to go out of date at bargain prices it’s difficult to see why an aisle of out-of-date ambient foods - provided it’s clearly marked - wouldn’t attract similar interest.