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The next steps for food waste in England

Anthesis’ Dr Julian Parfitt recently contributed to a panel discussion on the ‘Next steps for the new Parliament’ to debate the eighth report on ‘Food Waste in England’ from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee inquiry. The report, published 25th April, highlighted the extent of food waste in the UK, with approximately 7.3 million tonnes of household food wasted in 2015. The report makes a number of recommendations to the new Government for addressing food waste in England.

In response, Julian considers some of the key issues in relation to the report recommendations, such as the food supply chain, addressing topics such as food waste prevention, date labelling, ‘wonky’ veg and the importance of the measuring and monitoring food waste by food businesses.


Prevention within the food supply chain

Firstly, avoiding food waste at source needs far greater emphasis. It is easier to talk about the redistribution of food surplus than the prevention of waste at source. But a supply chain less prone to creation of food surpluses is the ultimate prize. For food businesses looking into prevention methods, there are a number of interlinked initiatives or activities that they should consider, including:

  • Packaging re-design and other innovations to increase a food product’s shelf-life
  • Addressing issues linked with a product’s Minimum Life on Receipt, a factor often cited in retail depot returns
  • Better measurement and monitoring, linked to more transparent reporting of food waste and detailed mapping of food waste sources back onto processes
  • Greater supply chain collaboration in planning and ordering of food, especially for more perishable food categories
  • Product life extension

That being said, it’s important not to detract from the immediate issue of food poverty and the need to redistribute surpluses that cannot or have not been prevented. Respectively, the EFRA Committee has recommended that WRAP sets a target to double food redistribution to charities; however, this could be considered unambitious, with retailers like Tesco increasing redistribution by 150% within just a year.

Date labelling

The EFRA report also considered consumer misunderstanding of ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates as a factor in food waste. Revised guidance on date labels is currently being drafted by Defra, WRAP and the Food Standards Agency. However, the expectation of reform resulting in significant reductions in food waste can be argued against. A number of factors come into play that would need to be considered alongside date label modifications, including:

  • The consumer’s interaction with date labels – which products do consumers commonly consult the date label for? And how do you address those consumers who don’t refer to them at all?
  • The underlying reasons why a consumer may discard uneaten food – in certain research settings the public is more likely to offer ‘date expiry’ as the reason for waste because they might be too embarrassed by the real reasons, such as over-spending on food or not being aware of what’s hiding in the back of the fridge etc.
  • Confusing on-pack consumer advice on storage temperatures, ‘open life’ and home freezing are also important considerations that may contribute to food waste.

Wonky veg

While the EFRA report recommends that retailers relax their quality standards and start selling ‘wonky vegetables as part of their main fruit and vegetable lines’, it again requires some careful thought. Across much of the developing world small holder farmers are unable to access higher value markets for a lack of established marketing standards[1]. This lowers farm incomes and reduces investment in quality inputs to production as the market does not respond to that quality by paying a higher price. Marketing standards therefore play an important role in the proper operation of markets and the issue is not so much about whether retailer specification are too tight, but does the sector support a range of suitable end-markets to ensure high crop utilisation?

The over-relaxation of marketing standards could also have perverse consequences for the produce sector. This view was recently reinforced when I had the opportunity to visit a courgette farm to discuss out-grades and food waste. The farmer’s concern was that if grading got too broad their business would be at risk, as the investments made to improve growing practices, water management, harvesting, storage and staff training, would be immediately undercut and the business would become unprofitable.

There is also confusion about produce out-grades and food waste, which should not be regarded as inter-changeable. Out-grading is more about the value of end markets in monetary and social value (in keeping ‘food as food’) than it is about food waste. For example, the use of out-grades in livestock feed removes food from the supply chain but the material is not a waste, only a low grade use. A number of businesses have already begun to identify ways to market out-graded produce through a variety of channels, such as retailer value ranges and alternative markets within wholesale and food service sectors. Retailers have a key role in encouraging the use of the fresh produce that they don’t buy and opportunities exist for their use as ingredients elsewhere in their supply chain, such as in ready meals or soups or pre-prepared carrot batons. The much talked about selling of ‘wonky veg’ represents only a small fraction of produce that does not make it to the supermarket shelves. The more significant contributions to improved use of out-grades will be through the value added markets created within the supply chain. This will require greater supply chain collaboration between retailers, growers and food processers.

Quantification of food waste

An important consideration in managing food waste within the supply chain is the extent to which it is measured and monitored by food businesses. EFRA calls on the incoming Government to require food businesses over a particular size to publicly report food waste data and commends Tesco’s for the voluntary reporting of annual arisings from its stores and depots[2]. Tesco has shared the methodology with the sector and developed a transparent, independently validated, reporting process that conforms to the internationally recognised Food Loss and Waste Accounting Standard[3]. The most important aspect of this reporting is the detail behind it, in terms of food product categories and the underlying reasons for wastage. This level of granularity is pre-requisite for placing proper emphasis on prevention (a single annual tonnage will not do), as well identification of any edible surpluses suitable for redistribution. Hopefully this example will be rapidly followed by others in the retail sector and that this will also lever further transparency of reporting within the food supply chain.

Dr Julian Parfitt is Resource Policy Advisor and Practice Leader at Anthesis – if you’d like to get in touch, contact him at Julian.Parfitt@anthesisgroup.com, or alternatively, use our fill out form below:


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[1] http://value-chains.org/dyn/bds/docs/933/Scaling_Impact_Output_Markets_Report(2).pdf
[2] https://www.tescoplc.com/tesco-and-society/food-waste/food-waste-data/
[3] http://flwprotocol.org/
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