UK supermarkets reject 'wasted food' report claims

Wasted food in a bin The report said half the food bought in Europe and the US ended up in the bin

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Britain's biggest supermarkets have been defending their practices after a report suggested that up to half of the world's food is thrown away.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers said the waste was being caused by poor storage, strict sell-by dates, bulk offers and consumer fussiness.

The British Retail Consortium said supermarkets have "adopted a range of approaches" to combat waste.

They also lobbied the EU to relax laws stopping the sale of misshaped produce.

According to the report - Global Food; Waste Not, Want Not - from the UK-based institution, as much as half of the world's food, amounting to two billion tonnes worth, is wasted.

Its study claims that up to 30% of vegetables in the UK were not harvested because of their physical appearance.

'Waste of resources'

The report said that between 30% and 50% of the four billion tonnes of food produced around the world each year went to waste.

It suggested that half the food bought in Europe and the US was thrown away.

Dr Tim Fox, head of energy and environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said: "The amount of food wasted and lost around the world is staggering. This is food that could be used to feed the world's growing population - as well as those in hunger today.

Food waste is a subject that people get very incensed about. But this report, while re-iterating the scale of the problem, doesn't really advance the story.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers review draws heavily on work carried out over a number of years for the Food and Agriculture Organisation of UN. However one expert in the field suggested that there was no absolutely reliable global data on the level of waste.

One of the boldest claims in the report is that "30% of the UK vegetable crop is never harvested."

It suggests that farmers are leaving vegetables in the ground because they don't meet the supermarket standards required. The research on which that claim is based is from 2008 and only looks at potatoes. It concludes that 6% is lost at field level while 22% is either thrown away or diverted to other markets during processing.

The headline claim that up to 50% of all food is thrown away really depends on your definitions, one researcher told me. At least a difference should be made between food losses and food waste.

"It is also an unnecessary waste of the land, water and energy resources that were used in the production, processing and distribution of this food.

"The reasons for this situation range from poor engineering and agricultural practices, inadequate transport and storage infrastructure through to supermarkets demanding cosmetically perfect foodstuffs and encouraging consumers to overbuy through buy-one-get-one-free offers."

He told the BBC's Today programme: "If you're in the developing world, then the losses are in the early part of the food supply chain, so between the field and the marketplace.

"In the mature, developed economies the waste is really down to poor marketing practices and consumer behaviour."

Dr Fox called on "governments, development agencies and organisation like the UN" to work to help change people's mindsets on waste and discourage wasteful practices.

But the BRC questioned the report's link between promotions and food waste, highlighting a UK government survey that showed buy-one-get-one-free offers were becoming rarer.

"Retailers want to help customers make their money go further," it said.

"They've also adopted a range of approaches to help people make the best use of the food they buy, including giving clear storage advice and recipe ideas, and offering a wider range of portion sizes."

It added that "using more of the crop to cut food waste and increase sustainable production is an objective for all retailers. This is how we are exceeding government targets for food waste."

The supermarket giant Morrisons said it was working with farmers and suppliers to eliminate wastage.

A spokesperson said: "We understand how important it is to tackle the issue of food waste and make an effort to do so in every area of our business - from our manufacturing facilities right through to store.

"We don't currently offer buy-one-get-one-free offers on our fruit and vegetables, have relaxed our specifications on this produce to accept more 'wonky' crops and offer clear labelling for customers."

Toine Timmermans, from Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands, described the IME publication as a "relevant report that draws attention to an important issue and topic".

But he added: "Based on years of research I find the conclusion about the amount of food waste (1.2-2 billion tonnes) unrealistically high."

Tristram Stuart, from food waste campaign group Feeding the 5000, said: "Amazingly, there has been no systematic study of food waste at the farm level either in the UK or elsewhere in Europe or the US.

"In my experience, it's normal practice for farmers to assume that 20% to 40% of their fruit and vegetable crops won't get to market, even if they are perfectly fit for human consumption."

Tom Tanner, from the Sustainable Restaurants Association, said: "It is the power of major retailers - convenience shopping and supermarkets on everyone's doorstep, you can nip out and buy a ready made meal in two minutes rather than make use of what's in your fridge."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 182.

    Sell-by dates are largely responsible for waste - they are almost meaningless.
    Buy, say milk or chicken, leave in warm place and it is 'off' before sell-by-date - take same products and store in refrigerator at say 2 degrees above freezing and it is still fit to eat well after the stated date.
    Nanny State at its worst.

  • rate this

    Comment number 181.

    Wasting food isn't good, but I bet that they are counting inedible things like veg and fruit peelings and bones to exaggerate the amount of "wasted" food, because that's what they did last time that they reported this 18 months ago.

  • rate this

    Comment number 180.

    Sell by dates have a lot to do with it. My fridge is very cold and things keep much longer. If it looks OK and smells OK it probably is. That's how we used to decide before sell by dates. Now perfectly good food gets thrown away unnecessarily both by shops and by households.

  • rate this

    Comment number 179.

    137.Steve P

    That is of course until someone contracts an illness from said (below regulated temperature) batch and the supermarket is sued for hundreds of thousands of pounds.

    I assume this is the case with Use by dates. There's probably some European law forcing supermarkets display them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 178.

    I will admit to wasting more food than I would like, and believe that the main factors affecting me personally are:

    1, A surprising amount of food is presented in "family size" packaging, which is endlessly frustrating when you're only trying to feed 1 or 2 people.

    2. Tiny freezers, limiting your ability to keep food for later use (as found in many more modern rented properties).

  • rate this

    Comment number 177.

    For a few months now I'm buying rather expensive, good quality, tasty ingredients and cook them into proper meals every day.
    You'd be surprised at just how much difference planning and avoiding impulse purchases makes for both not wasting food and eating well.
    Also, my expenses actually went down due to lack of take outs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 176.

    Most of it seems to be on the pavement between my house, the pub and the kebab house, although to be fair I think quite a bit of it actually gets eaten first.

  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    The sad thing is that this news article does not even surprise me. I just have to look around in the streets to see rubbish bins and bags full of wasted food. At some point, someone will be presented with the bill for all this waste, and this bill will not necessarily be in the form of money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.

    When are we going to realise that the system simply doesn't work? Add the fact that our farnming methods are mostly inefficient and out-dated. We can feed the World easily. The system simply doesn't allow it to happen. Research the Venus Project and the Zeitgeist Movement, they have the answers if anyone cares to listen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    @79. Back to top
    LOL, That says something, doesn't it? May be you should get better at it or let someone else do it properly to avoid wasting food.

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    It is a mind set. I have consciously changed my shopping habits by planning the meals for the week and only buying what I want. We dont waste food anymore and as for the person who bought a large tin of tomatoes because he couldnt buy a small one and then threw half the tin away? Shame on you - use what was left in something else!

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    At the end of the day my local mini TESCO throws all the un-sold bread into the bin. Why? There's a soup kitchen in town for the poor and an old folks home around the corner... There's a cafe at the local Wyvale garden centre which sells delicious slices of quiche. Yes, you've guessed it, I watched aghast as the un-sold pieces go into the bin at 3pm, then they trot out the scones, IMechE spot on!

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    This is a necessary evil. The general populace buys too much food, which maintains the prices (for farmers), which means that it makes economical sense for farmers to keep growing food (but they STILL need subsidies)

    If we were eating 99% of the food that is produced, what would happen if there was a couple of bad harvests? The waste is REQUIRED. This is why the west has had no famines since WW2.

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    I asked the local market manager why they throw food away, here is the kicker .... By law here in the states they are not allowed to sell it or give it way after the expiration date. Sigh...just one more government regulation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    Joe blogs @ 135: Poor you, being disgusted that some people might take pleasure from something that they have to do anyway.

    How utterly horrid that you consider that "obscene". But well done for, in your puritanical saintliness, conflating pleasure in eating with waste.

    Personally, taking pleasure in what I buy, cook and eat, ensures almost no waste.

    Perhaps pleasure in food aids brain power?

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    155. stereotonic
    because when I see these 'offers', I walk away."


    If you're going to buy a pack of carrots, and it's almost as cheap to buy two, why not buy two and eat more carrots (and less of something else) that week? Or make carrot soup and freeze it, or something?

    "152. Zaax 1/2 of the tin will go in the brown bin."

    Why not put it in the freezer or have it for lunch?

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    126. Paul
    Note the word "usually" in my original comment.

    Being from a family of butchers, I can say for certain that meats correctly stored (not frozen) can be fit for eating past the use by dates. Obviously if it's started to walk around again then it may be a bit past it. Common sense needs to be applied.

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    If young people were taught more about food science and cookery, they would be able to store food in correct conditions and realise that supermarket "sell by" dates are, in effect, a marketing devise to encourage quick consumption (or dumping) to maximise their profits. So, the answer to avoiding food waste is education from a young age.

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    I know alot of people follow the sell by date rule to the letter. The fact of the matter is if it smells good and looks good it usually is good. Most foods can be frozen for a long period as well saving on inproper storage. It also seems to be habit that makes people avoid "mishapen fruit and veg" I personally dont see anything wrong with them. But the fact we can waste food shows how lucky we are

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    Wastage from restaurants (except canteens) fast food or otherwise is not as high as domestic wastage. Profits mean just in time ordering, portion control etc are vital. Canteens are a different model, but even they have an eye on wastage. There's more wastage in supermarkets, homes and warehouses than you would believe.


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