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Political Print: Food waste retreat beggars belief

Proposals for mandatory food waste reporting enjoyed strong support among businesses. So why have ministers dropped them? Nick Hughes reports.

Seasoned Westminster watchers know only too well the need to remain on high alert the day before summer recess begins. Ministers often take the opportunity to sneak out awkward documents in the hope they will go largely unnoticed, before escaping to the Cornish coast or French Riviera for the duration of August.

Sure enough, as the damp days of July ebbed away Defra seized the opportunity to drop a hefty haul of documents on the last Friday of the month. Among these was the revelation that a long-anticipated requirement for companies over a certain size to report their food waste has been canned, despite the policy enjoying strong support among businesses.

The decision has led to bafflement and anger across the food stakeholder spectrum. WSH’s director of sustainable business Mike Hanson captured the mood of many when he posted on social media: “This is absolutely staggering and a scandalous dereliction of duty by the government.”

WSH-owned workplace caterer BaxterStorey has been a trailblazer in publicly reporting its levels of food waste and delivering reductions over time. “Financially, morally and environmentally food waste has an enormous impact and we need mandatory reporting to drive reduction fast,” Hanson added.

For now, at least, he and many others will remain frustrated. So what’s driven the government’s decision to ditch a popular proposal?

Frequent backsliding 

A commitment to consult on annual reporting of food surplus and waste dates back to the 2018 resources and waste strategy for England. In its 2022 food strategy, the government announced the launch of a consultation on improved food waste reporting by large food businesses in England. The consultation document itself focused heavily on how mandatory reporting would work in practice – rather than on the desirability of mandatory versus stronger voluntary measures – and it was widely expected that the policy would be enacted as a mere formality.

Yet to widespread dismay, and despite the fact it acknowledges in its consultation response that the number of businesses voluntarily reporting food waste “has stalled and is expected to plateau”, the government has opted merely to enhance current voluntary agreements. It will do so by extending the so-called ‘Field Force’ team of sector specialists who will help “accelerate the take-up of voluntary measurement and reporting of food waste by businesses”. This voluntary approach will remain in place until at least mid-2025 at which point a review will be undertaken.

Set within the context of backsliding on other food and waste regulations the move perhaps isn’t as surprising as it first appears. Plans for both extended producer responsibility (EPR) on packaging and a ban on unhealthy food promotions have been kicked down the road in recent weeks with the government citing a reluctance to add to cost of living pressures. Setting aside the social benefits of such policies for a moment it’s at least comprehensible why an embattled government would cave in to pressure from parts of the industry to desist from measures that may add cost to consumers or dampen business profitability.

Business support

What makes the decision to back away from mandatory food waste reporting so perplexing is that there is no obvious commercial or political rationale for it. Responses to the government consultation showed that the policy enjoys high levels of support from all stakeholder groups, from interested individuals through to NGOs and businesses themselves.

Among the 22 businesses from the hospitality and food service sector who responded were major contract caterers Compass and Sodexo, quick service stalwarts like McDonald’s and Costa, and restaurant chains including Pizza Express and Hawksmoor.

Stripping out the individuals who participated en masse via a campaign organised by the food charity Feedback, 80% of consultation respondents were in favour of making food waste measurement and reporting mandatory for large food businesses. This included a large majority of businesses from the hospitality and foodservice (73%) and retail (79%) sectors. Manufacturers were more circumspect but 45% still voted for mandatory measures.

What’s more, a majority of businesses responding to the consultation indicated that they already collect data on their food surplus and waste. Eighteen (including six within the hospitality sector) said they already publish it, while a majority that don’t currently publish data said they plan to do so in the future regardless of regulations.

Cost concerns don’t stack up

It all adds up to one of the least contentious food policy interventions in recent history. Yet ministers have refused to see it through. There are two main reasons for this cited in the government’s consultation response: cost, inevitably, is one with the other being a lack of response from businesses with over 250 employees who would actually be within scope of the new requirements.

Neither of these justifications stands up to even the softest of scrutiny. In its consultation response the government says it “considers the costs of introducing regulation for food waste reporting to be too high”, citing an impact assessment accompanying the consultation which estimated the total average annual reporting costs to business to be £5.3m, equivalent to £32,362 per year for a business new to food waste reporting.

Yet earlier in its response, the government references Wrap’s ‘Food waste reduction roadmap progress report 2021’ which found that businesses measuring and reporting multi-year data collectively saved 251,000 tonnes of food from going to waste in 2020 compared to when they first reported data (which varied between 2015 and 2019), worth a whopping £365m. Divided between the 140 businesses assessed by Wrap in the report this equates to well over £2m in cost savings per business.

Moreover, the government’s own impact assessment calculates that just 3,954 tonnes of food must be reduced over a 10-year period to counterbalance the total cost of the regulation. It states that “this seems achievable and extremely small” compared to the approximate 1,580,082 tonnes of food being wasted by large food businesses in England each year, equating to 0.25% of this food waste. Unnecessary food waste is “inefficient, pushing up the price of food for consumers and businesses whilst undermining our national self-sufficiency”, notes the assessment. Reducing food waste can help food businesses “cut costs, which can be passed onto customers and identify food that could be redistributed to the most vulnerable.”

However way you dice the data the evidence suggests that the savings from measuring and reporting food waste far outweigh the costs of doing so. Wrap, which heads up the UK’s current voluntary food waste reduction programme, has long argued that when businesses start identifying their food waste hotspots they can take decisive action to reduce it and save cash in the process. The organisation was characteristically diplomatic in its response to the government decision to persist with voluntary measures but the subtext was clear – this is a decision that will hold back progress towards the UK meeting its target to halve food waste by 2030 (and efforts to reduce carbon emissions from the food chain). A Wrap spokesperson says: “Wrap has always outlined the benefits possible from mandatory food waste reporting in encouraging more businesses to act. Given the government decision to not introduce mandatory food waste reporting yet, Wrap is re-emphasizing the importance of our ‘target, measure, act’ approach. Businesses that measure and report food waste through Wrap have made significant progress in reducing both food waste and costs to their businesses.”

Smoke and mirrors

And what of the other reason put forward by the government – that only 39% of total respondents to the consultation identified as a large business meaning that the majority of respondents would in practice not be subject to the regulation? This argument doesn’t stack up either; in fact it looks like a desperate act of deflection given that when you strip out the non-business respondents, 90% of hospitality sector businesses identified as large (and therefore in-scope) along with 75% of retailers and 100% of manufacturers. Considered alongside the high overall support among businesses for mandatory measures this means the majority of in-scope businesses who responded to the consultation were in favour of the regulatory option.

So what’s really going on? Is the government seriously giving greater weight to the imagined view of those businesses who chose not to respond to the consultation over the actual view of those who did? One can never rule out the influence on ministerial decision making of behind-closed-doors lobbying by vested interests, but if that’s the case here one might reasonably ask what is the point of consulting at all?

The truth behind the decision not to proceed with mandatory reporting may in reality be more prosaic. One industry source suggests “there is an element of ‘this government has given up’” ahead of an expected election defeat, a dispiriting thought which nonetheless may contain more than a kernel of truth.

Perhaps it’s felt that Defra officials simply don’t have the bandwidth to deal with more regulatory legwork on top of the demands placed on them by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU?

More likely is that ideological opposition to ‘red-tape’ is so entrenched among certain Conservative politicians (including Defra secretary of state Thérèse Coffey) that even the most uncontentious, beneficial of proposals has to be kyboshed in order to keep up appearances and placate a vocal minority within the party.

If that’s the case then ministers should gear up for a battle in the autumn. Feedback, a campaigning group, is already rallying supporters to its cause with a petition to reinstate the original proposal. “After years of dither and delay, the government’s decision to scrap mandatory food waste reporting is an insult,” says Martin Bowman, Feedback’s senior policy and campaigns manager. “We have over a decade’s evidence to show that voluntary reporting hasn’t worked.”

If the government is serious about tackling food waste it will surely be forced into a rethink when politicians return from their summer slumber. If it doesn’t, it will simply reinforce a view held by many that on matters of food policy (and others beside) this ceased to be a serious government some time ago.