The ugly truth

FOOD WASTE is costing the retail grocery sector £6.9bn, with complex supply chains creating a pricemeal approach to waste prevention. Manufacturers and retailers need to refocus their efforts.


Retailer standards can result in 40% of edible produce being rejected, and then often ploughed back into the land or siphoned off for animal feed. DEFRA, for one, has claimed that the standards are unsustainable, while last year, on the back of one of the worst growing seasons for some time, supermarkets started accepting wonky carrots, knobbly spuds and slightly battered Brussels sprouts. The Co-operative said it was about being pragmatic after an abysmal harvest. Shoppers proved equally rational, happy to buy imperfect pears and bent beans.


Now awareness has been raised, pressure is growing to ensure that ugly fruit gets a look in whatever the weather. Whether it’s sold in the supermarket, used in manufacturing and foodservice or diverted to food banks, the cost of just throwing it away – economically, ethically and environmentally – has reached a tipping point.


The government’s waste advisers at WRAP have just published data suggesting the UK grocery retail sector is throwing away 6.5m tonnes of waste every year. That equates to about £6.5 billion of waste, when the cost of the food and ingredients, the energy and water and the disposal and lost profits are all factored in. Indeed, the cost of chucking away a tonne of waste has almost doubled – from £500 to £950 – principally due to rising energy and raw material prices.


But WRAP’s research goes further than the amount and cost of waste: it considers where in the chain it arises, what it is and what is happening to it. This is one of the most detailed pictures of grocery chain waste ever. For example, we now know that of the 6.5m tonnes, 4.9m (75%) is from food and drink manufacturers, and the majority of that (3.9m) is food waste. A third (1.3m tonnes) of that food waste is recycled, while much of the rest (2m tonnes) is spread onto land. David Bellamy is environmental policy manager at the Food and Drink Federation. He lists the commitments made by federation members to reduce and recycle more waste, including the “zero waste to landfill” target for 2015. There is also the Courtauld Commitment, which he says has “proven to be an effective means of delivering real reductions” in waste.


Phase two of the voluntary commitment saw supply chain waste fall by 8.8%, beating the 5% target. In phase three, food, drink and packaging waste must be cut by 3% between 2012 and 2015. However, critics suggest that these targets do not go far enough and argue that legislation might be necessary to curb the waste culture that appears to still permeate the food chain. At the very least, the sector needs to take a closer look at its supply chains.


“It is blindingly obvious why we need to reduce food waste,” said the Tesco CEO, Philip Clarke, in his speech at the Global Green Growth Forum in Copenhagen last month. “When I said earlier this year [launching the Big Ambitions] that Tesco wanted to lead in reducing food waste, I wasn’s just talking about reducing food waste in our own operations. I meant making a difference from the farmer’s field to the customer’s fridge, and beyond.”


As Footprint went to press, the supermarket had just published a warts and all “waste footprint” of some of its products in a bid to identify where savings can be made – from farm to household bin. As a result, it’ll be ditching some multi-buy promotions on fresh produce and working with suppliers to reduce losses in the field.


The transparent approach is a welcome one. “With greater pressure on resources, supply chains will now come under greater scrutiny,” explains Jamie Pitcairn, Scotland director at consultants Ricardo-AEA.


“Resource use is not properly accounted for across supply chains and waste at each stage is not seen, which results in a piecemeal approach across the chain.”


Pitcairn says there needs to be “a shortening of the chain”, with more transparency which will expose the inefficiencies and enable new leaner practices to be adopted.


WRAP’s food and drink programme manager for manufacturing and retail, Estelle Herszenhorn, agrees that retail supply chains can be long and complex. “The research we’ve done shows that it’s a pretty complex picture,” she says, “and there aren’t just one or two causes” of waste. “Food companies are working to make their businesses more efficient, but they have complex supply chains which affect how and why waste arises.”


Given the spotlight cast on the retail food chain in the wake of the horse meat scandal, and subsequent commitments to shorten supply chains, now would seem to be the perfect time to evaluate waste in the chain. Herszenhorn suggests that a refocusing of priorities is required to get to grips with the 6.5m tonnes of waste her team has uncovered in the retail chain.


Good progress has been made” through initiatives like the Courtauld Commitment “but one of the reasons of the new report was to illustrate the tonnages of waste and the values of that to engender more of a focus on waste prevention.”


Doing so could provide also some handsome returns.