Tesco aren’t the first, and they aren’t the only supermarket giants to be putting serious effort into waste reduction.

As I wander round the fruit and veg section of my local Intermarché in the sleepy French town of Bedarieux I am reminded of a conversation we were having back in the AFTP office about Tesco’s recent announcement that they will donate their food waste to charity. Tesco aren’t the first, and they aren’t the only giant supermarkets to be putting serious effort into waste reduction.

For the French it is a legal requirement to dispose of food waste via the charity route, with heavy fines for breaches, while in Italy there is talk of incentivising business to donate their surplus. But is it all it purports to be? Well, of course not. Whatever is? But it does bear closer thought.

The cynic in us shouts “it’s all media hype just to make them look good”. I mean, really, whoever heard of Tesco (or any of the others) being philanthropic? Except, quite often they are. There has been a voluntary agreement in the UK within the grocery and retail sector and for a long time they have been donating their unsold food to community organisations so these announcements aren’t actually new initiatives, they are just going public.

Labour MP Kerry McCarthy presented his food waste bill for its first reading in parliament last week, a bill similar to that of the French, forcing supermarkets and manufacturers to pass their unsold food to charities to reduce the “scandalous” amount of food waste. He is quite right, the amount is scandalous and his aims for social reform after witnessing the needy foraging from bins are laudable.

The French and the British have similar waste figures, in the region of 7 million tonnes per year each. Except a whopping 67% of this is wasted by consumers. OK, so that’s still leaves 33% but, just to put it into perspective, you and I waste over 4.5 million tonnes of food between us a year. I know the BOGOF culture (or “buy 1 throw 1 away”) didn’t help and the supermarkets have addressed that to some extent but, let’s face it, we didn’t have to have the one to throw away, even if it was free and 4.5 million tonnes is a bit more than the odd box of squelchy strawberries. I know, I know, it could go in the freezer, or I could get a bit closer to my 5 a day, or I could just trim the hairy bit off, but you know how it is…….

Anyway, I digress. So what could possibly be the downside to donating unsold food to those in need? The French law stipulates that large supermarkets (those of >400m2 footprint) are forbidden from deliberately spoiling unsold food so that it can’t be eaten and includes the provision for education in schools and businesses in its waste reduction strategy. However, as with their British counterparts, the Fédération du Commerce et de la Distribution criticised the plan saying that they have been donating >5% for years. Indeed, some pressure groups themselves in France, such as Gars’pilleurs, who work to raise awareness of poverty and waste, have been lukewarm on the whole idea. They have concerns that it doesn’t address the wider issues and that community organisations could become a dumping ground having to foot the cost of disposal or end up with more food than they can handle. At first pass, I questioned how on earth this latter point could be a problem when there are so many in need. A recent stop over at Lyon station showed all too clearly their problem, emphasised again outside Euston station in London. Surely the more food the more people they can feed? But it comes down to funds. These community groups, both British and French (and I suspect everywhere else too) only have just enough resources to process the food that is currently donated to them and couldn’t afford the extra that more donations would require, regardless of how many they would love to feed.

So what is the answer? Well we could shift the problem from retailer to consumer even more by selling turnips shaped like a thingy at rock bottom prices. Or perhaps, the supermarkets should just stop buying it? The producers could stop producing it? Hmmm, if only it were that simple. This doesn’t reduce the waste or feed society’s needy. As ever, the problem cannot be considered in isolation. A holistic view is needed with due consideration for cause and effect and whichever way you look at it we have to be creative with what we do with what we produce because the scales still tip in the direction of massive wastage, the needy still go hungry and the obesity and cardiovascular disease epidemics continue to run amok.

If you have enjoyed reading this blog and would like to know more about how food quality and sustainability are managed within the food chain check out these courses.


Barbara Mason

5th April 2016

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