‘’1/3 OF ALL FOOD IS LOST/WASTED’’ – The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
The quote above describes the amount of food that is wasted in the world each year. Developed countries are the major contributors to food-waste as compared to developing countries, with a significant proportion occurring at the retail level. Within the UK, food-waste at supermarkets accounts for a staggering 6 million tonnes per year. Even though this isn’t as high as other areas of the food supply system, like farming, it is more than enough to influence food-waste.
There are various definitions of food-waste due to the complexities of food systems across the globe. Though, for the context of this post, food-waste is defined as ‘food that has the purpose for human consumption but has been lost or wasted through various reasons, post-production’. It is noteworthy that the definition of food waste is correlated with the definition of food surplus, where there is an excess of produce compared to what is needed. This is also a major contributor of food-waste within supermarkets. A few examples of super-market waste include over-loading shelves or the rejection of cosmetically diverse foods.
‘Pile it High, Sell it Cheap’
At all levels of food production, from farming to packaging, supermarket policies have a major impact on food-waste, compromising money, time and resources. For instance, the ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ strategy by Sir Jack Cohen, the founder of Tesco, is a popular tactic UK supermarkets follow. Vast amounts of fresh produce, such as fruit, vegetables, and meat are over-bought as it is believed bursting shelves and cheap prices are more appealing to customers.
The inefficiency of these policies results in tonnes of food being discarded, whether it goes to livestock, energy renewal or straight into landfill sites. The fact that this food is surplus to begin with due to over-production, contradicts the first and second tiers of the food-waste hierarchy. It appears that the ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ rule UK supermarkets follow is a major contributor to edible food-waste.
The Waste Hierarchy is an attempt by the Commissions Waste Management Strategy within the EU to reduce food-waste.
Disposal is used the most often as it is the cheapest option. Waitrose was found to be the worst supermarket for food-waste.
However, taking a look at the changing agenda’s that some supermarkets, such as Tesco (ironically) have implemented, there seems to be slow changes in improving their sustainability. Tesco plans to remove ‘best by’ dates on over 100 products and has reached 65% of their food-waste goal.
Furthermore, Tesco has released food-waste figures and have urged for transparency by other stores who are reluctant to do so, due to high costs, energy, and resource waste. Even so, sources have forecasted all supermarkets are to disclose waste figures, which is a huge step in confronting supermarket food-waste.
What is interesting, is that supermarkets have tended to reject foods that are cosmetically unusual, which is another reason why farmers are forced to over-produce food to fill the shelves of superstores. This argument constantly appears when searching issues of supermarket food-waste, although recently, stores such as Morrisons, Tesco, Asda, and Lidl have marketed wonky fruit and veg at reduced prices to combat edible food-waste. For instance, rather than marketing this produce at lower prices, Tesco are using unusually shaped fresh produce in cold-pressed juices.
Despite stores now evolving to the idea of marketing these foods, farmers continue to have up to a 40% rejection rate due to cosmetic and size requirements, regardless of the edibility of such foods. It has also been outlined by many consumers the cosmetic aspect of foods is not an important factor when shopping. Although, studies find this food must be at reduced prices, in spite of its quality.
Now, it can be easy to assume that wasted food could be swiftly redistributed to those that are in need, and even though the UK’s large supermarkets have implemented projects that attempt to tackle food wastage in conjunction with organisations such as WRAP and Fareshare (UK’s largest food-waste charity), this barely touches the problem. These charities believe they have access to only 2% of all supermarket food excess.
Although, on a more positive note, Fareshare have reported having saved the UK £51 million every year, donating food not only to the homeless but schools, domestic violence victims and community cafes.
What Could be Done to Reduce Supermarket Food-Waste?
Even though there are many multifaceted factors that add to the food-waste problem within the UK, the super-market policies that have been pointed out in this blog, clearly have a rippling effect on edible, wasted fresh produce. The ‘’pile it high, sell it cheap’’ strategy forces farmers to over-produce food in order to meet supermarket requirements and the rejection of wonky fruits and veg adds to this issue. Despite stores having recently attempted to adjust some of their guidelines in tackling the food-waste problem, it does not seem to have enough of an impact as of yet.
It seems as if there is a lack of interest in reducing the abundance of fresh produce foods. Whichever waste reduction policy stores decide to use, whether it be selling it cheaper or pressing it into bottles, there seems to be a marketing strategy to pull in customers, and revenue.
For supermarkets to effectively reduce food-waste, stores need to rethink their strategies. Supermarkets need to work with suppliers to create a more sustainable framework, in line with the EU’s Waste Hierarchy, rather than generating marketing ideas to sell more. This is because superstores have a unique influence on the food supply system within the UK. With a wide-ranging audience, the resources to afford a financial loss and mass-market, they can push forward food-waste strategies that cut food-waste substantially.
Is This Enough?
Let’s not forget, other businesses such as suppliers and packagers have interests in revenue and influence the food supply systems. But that’s an issue for another time.