For the proportion of food discarded in the supply chain, the retail sector only takes 5%. Does the retail sector not important?

Food waste is a major global issue which is regarded as an unsustainable system in food production and consumption.

Only in the European Union, about 88 million tones of food waste are generated with the related costs of 143 billion euros for each year. And the FAO report (Food and Agriculture Organisations of the United Nations) suggests that the amount of wasted food in Europe is enough to feed around 200 million people. Unlike the developing countries, more than 40% of the wastes occur at consumer and retail levels.

For food waste generation, even though the retail sector takes a smaller share in the food supply chains, it is still important to discuss the issue from the grocery retail aspect for several reasons. First, the supermarkets can be the best case studies in investigating food waste management approaches because they store a lot of perishable food products within relatively small spaces. In addition, the grocery retail sector links suppliers and consumers together and they strategically act at the central place. It can affect both supply and demand sides, such as raising awareness of people and managing the suppliers. The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) held the campaign ‘Love Food Hate Waste‘ is focusing on improving consumers’ awareness to reduce food waste. Nevertheless, it is argued the grocery retailers are ought to take more responsibility in raising consumer awareness because people still doubt the effectiveness of the campaign. The third reason is in developed countries, the retail sector increasingly contributes to sustainable development where food waste reduction is a cornerstone in those actions.

How do supermarkets tackling food waste

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WRAP’s food and drink material hierarchy (with FLW Standard destinations)


This waste hierarchy is a legal requirement provided by the WRAP. It sets out the instructions to deal with food and drink waste to minimize the negative impacts on the environment. The ideal strategy is preventing raw materials and ingredients as well as products from being waste at the beginning. As to the surplus food, the impact can be reduced through redistribution to meet human consumption or to feed animals.

In terms of mitigating food waste, the table below shows that almost all major supermarkets in the UK tend to choose food donation as a corporate priority. The reason behind is that the UK grocery retailers are under increasing public pressure especially after the Italy and France government made the decision to discourage the major supermarkets from generating avoidable food waste. This decision encourages supermarkets to donate the surplus food to food banks and charities so the food wastes can be reduced.

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The UK grocery retail sector content analysis in 2016

So the major UK grocery retailers started to make strategic partnerships through cooperating with stand-alone civil society organizations (such as local authorities) or surplus food distribution platforms (such as FareShare).


Example: how is Tesco doing?

Tasco has pledged to help to tackle the waste problem and has set their approach into actions.

  • Tesco works with FoodCloud and FareShare. Technology potentially supports food donation practices because it has accelerated the communication and practical process for donor and recipient. As a result, it ensures the safe donations and decreases the managerial liability. Through using an innovative app, Tesco is able to connect with local organisations and achieved the best usage of their surplus food. It has spurned cooperation with over 3,300 community groups as well as charities. The organisations can check what types are the food provided and they can arrange a time for the collection through FoodCloud.
  • According to the data, Tesco has donated more than 78 million meals through the ‘food surplus redistribution programme’ as well as the annual Food Collection.
  • Tesco has built long-term strategic partnerships with several national food banks in Central Europe.
  • Over 36 million meals have been donated to more than 7,000 organisations and charities through the Community Food Connection (part of Food Cloud project).
  • Since 2009, there has been no food from any Tesco stores ever entered landfill, according to Tesco. Tesco transforms baked food to feed animals.



Barriers, long way to go

There are practical problems. Even though grocery retailers have a clear purpose to reduce food waste, some local store managers may do not reflect back to the corporate vision. It might because they have little knowledge about the hierarchy of food waste reduction and they do not value the waste prevention over disposal.

Data is crucial to get a whole picture of food waste. Tesco has provided relatively transparent data through the third-party audited report on food waste, while Asda, Waitrose and other retailers are failed to follow and their data on in-store waste is hard to access.

Though the overall food donation data (which is nearly 3.00 tones in 2016) provided by the Sainsbury’s sounds impressive, it only takes 7% of the surplus. According to the data provided by Tesco, in the UK, 44% of the bread production is wasted.  The distribution depots and supermarket bakeries tend to have far more surplus bread than those can be used by charities.

Supermarkets, as the connection between suppliers and consumers, play a vital part in tackling food waste problem. But based on the data, there is still a lot can be improved and a long way to go to really tackle the problem.