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The Food Waste Fallacy

20/04/2017 12:24

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Source: Rachel Greenwood-Haigh

Prepare yourself for a sharp intake of breath as this may come as a surprise: we do not have an issue with food waste in the UK. Fact. It doesn't exist.

OK, maybe I'm being a little flippant in suggesting there isn't an issue. Yes, the levels are currently very high due to a number of reasons but waste is inevitable, right? That being said if all we do is label it and approach it negatively then we will only create barriers and assign blame. So let's cut that out OK? Jamie? Hugh? That goes for you too.

I'm going to consider this subject from two different perspectives. Steve Parfett's, chairman at AG Parfett & Sons and guru in the Food and Drink industry, and food and drink giant, Kellogg's.

'Consumers need better education in buying little and often'

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Source: Steve Parfett

OK, so we're not assigning blame in anyway but we do need to understand the driving force behind the current levels of waste and how we can tackle the issue collectively. Now this is a BIG question and one that industry expert, Steve Parfett, has recently written about in an article for article The Grocer .

The responsibilities in tackling waste and re-distributing food are collective and manufacturers, retailers and consumers all have an important role to play in addressing the balance. Steve is very passionate about the fact that 'suppliers need to examine their systems as waste is seen as a necessary cost at present where in fact it could often be reduced or eliminated'.

Thinking back to my time as a retail buyer I regularly used the phrase, although it makes me cringe now, 'we need to invest in waste' meaning that availability in certain categories (take fresh fruit and veg as a good example) is a more important metric to measure store staff on than wastage percentages.

Now, I'm not completely dismissive of this mentality however it does imply a degree of acceptance over the concept of waste and that it is a necessary evil. Steve would whole-heartedly disagree with this notion and suggest that with today's capabilities it should be possible to drastically reduce what is currently considered necessary waste.

Steve's article in The Grocer, apportions some of the waste issue to food manufacturers, by saying:

  • I have issues with both best-before and use-by dates. In my opinion most, if not all, best-before dates are unnecessary and a means to increase sales on the pretext of a belt and braces approach to "safety". Use-by dates are, in my experience, unnecessarily pessimistic and regarded by consumers as an absolute bar on use rather than a guideline. Most products which are a few days past their use-by dates are wholesome and safe yet suppliers seem to take the precautionary principle to the Nth degree rather than considering the actual risk. Consumers need educating in buying little and often, sensible storage and the use of dates as a guideline rather than an absolute criteria.

There's definitely something in Steve's view. Have you ever wondered why there's a need for a use-by date on bottled water or a tin of SPAM that would survive a nuclear attack? Now I'm not convinced that it's purely a commercial decision, although I'm sure that helps, but it does emphasise our obsessive ignorance regarding food safety as we're more inclined to trust something printed by a machine than our own judgement.

One piece of encouraging news that surfaced in 2017 on this subject was an agreement between DEFRA, the FSA and The British Sandwich Association which confirmed that use-by dates on sandwiches should only be treated as a guideline and not a definitive measure.

'Redirect as much surplus food as possible to help feed people in need'

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Source: Kellogg's UK

In order to get a balanced view on the subject it's important to also highlight an example of how manufacturers can play their role and take a lead on the food surplus they create; as such I got in touch with Kellogg's UK to understand what they're doing to be proactive.

Kellogg's made a pledge in 2013 to redistribute as much surplus as possible through its 'Breakfasts for Better Days' program and the company now supplies all 20 FareShare regional centres in the UK in accordance with Kellogg's food waste hierarchy (above). Although Kellogg's is in the business of making money and would therefore prefer to sell every gram of product produced it does take a progressive stance on waste/surplus management.

However it does highlight some barriers to achieving the surplus-utopia it's striving for:

  • At Kellogg's, we faced various barriers to donating our surplus food including the cost of providing food to charity vs the income we receive by selling the food for animal feed. We overcame this challenge as we identified that the social return on investment was greater than the costs and lost income. However, we would welcome the introduction of financial incentives such as those available for anaerobic digestion going forward. Countries such as France and Portugal are already offering several financial incentives to their food and drink industries so it can be done.

In 2016 Kellogg's had donated almost 8 million servings to FareShare with a great number of its own employees volunteering time to support the charity and redress the balance.

This article has considered two views from the food industry considering the wholesale/retail and manufacturing perspectives. Learnings can be taken from both Kellogg's and Steve Parfett and I would make some very simple suggestions based on these views that would change the landscape of the food surplus relationship we are all entrenched in:


1) Educate consumers on how to reduce food waste through buying habits
2) Define what is meant by 'safe for consumption'
3) Clearer guidelines on use-by and best-before dates
4) Incentivise manufacturers to handle their surplus responsibly

I'm not a socio-political expert but this seems really basic. So why isn't this happening? At the start of the article I asserted that we do not have a food waste issue in the UK; and I stand by that. The fix is simple.

Join the debate and fight the cause.

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