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 282.

    The only gain gain are the supermarkets. They entice us to buy far more than we really need. And the only reason they do so is to make vast profits for the elite. They care not a jot about what we are buying and the nutritional content, they just want us to consume.
    It is so morally wrong that people are STILL starving in other countries whilst the rich, but morally bankrupt, thrive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 281.

    "The consumer demands" is a lame argument. I cannot remember there ever being an angry mob of housewives outside any shop demanding Strawberries in winter or pre cleaned veg.

  • rate this

    Comment number 280.

    Sounds about right, we are throwing food away whilst people starve.

    Buy less and eat less, and exercise more you won't be so fat and you will have money in your pocket.

  • rate this

    Comment number 279.

    30 Minutes ago

    All this & and I'm not even a crusty, cardigan wearing, lentil muncher.....yet...

    Are you sure ? :)
    Really it is common sense and it's not hard once you get your mind in gear.

  • rate this

    Comment number 278.

    252. Confused
    Throw away dead fish at sea because its the wrong species or too small? - ridiculous. If it has been caught - use it!"

    The problem with that idea is that it rewards fishermen for overfishing or bad fishing techniques. "Oopsie, I caught twice as many fish as I should. Well, I'll sell them anyway and make twice as much money"

  • rate this

    Comment number 277.

    Its all a matter of common sense.

    If you don't have it you'll get stung more often than not.

    And rightly so... that's natural selection at work...

  • rate this

    Comment number 276.

    The existing system of offering a range of 'qualities' of goods such as Branded, Finest & Value works well with the present snobbery of a society that can basically afford what it requires. At the end of the range is the stigmatizing Yellow Sticker favoured largely by the truely poor. Oversupply draws custom down the ranges reducing profits so can only be tolerated rarely. Export the oversupply.

  • rate this

    Comment number 275.

    Some people are way too spoilt, picky and precious; so far as I'm concerned if it looks ok, smells ok and tastes ok then I'm going to through it in the bin because I 'should' have eaten it by yesterday. Obviously you're a bit more careful with chicken and fish, but on the whole it's a dreadful waste to bin endless perfectly good food because a little label tells you to.

  • rate this

    Comment number 274.

    Take a tip from a connoisseur ... Go visit your local Supermarket, take in all the dazzling, perfectly shaped fruit and veg, make lovely photographs to use as a background on your PC or mobile, swoon at the colours ...

    ... Then leave and go shopping at your local farmers market, there you might find stuff that actually tastes as nature intended.

  • rate this

    Comment number 273.

    @Zaax "I wanted a small tin of chopped tomatos for Saturday morning's breakfast, but my local supermarket didn't one so I had to get a larger one. 1/2 of the tin will go in the brown bin."

    Or buy a tomato to the size required, and chop it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 272.

    Waiting for a late night train, I got talking to a lad working for a station sandwich shop, carrying 3 sacks full to bursting of leftover sandwiches, rolls, etc. to be thrown because the next day it all had to be fresh when sold. When asked why it wasn't taken to the local homeless shelter, just outside the station, he said it was because the company were afraid of litigation. Food waste much?

  • rate this

    Comment number 271.

    Neil. The West is ok then? What about one billion people who go to bed hungry??

  • rate this

    Comment number 270.

    No 243 - Who "demands" strawberries in December?

  • rate this

    Comment number 269.

    247.Parallel World
    Bring back 'Domestic Science' as a compulsory subject and start retraining our adult population via their kids
    Part of the problem is there are people who call learning to cook, domestic science. And they can do it without peeing themselves laughing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 268.

    You should see the huge amount of food thrown away on luxury cruise ships. But then the paunchy customers don't care. Waste is all part of what they do and enjoy

    Having your plate full is considered to be luxury that they want. And to waste half of it is further luxury they enjoy.

    Half of each meal is fed to the seagulls. Despite so many hungry children in the countries paunchy folk visit?

  • rate this

    Comment number 267.

    Once, we only bought what we needed for the day/day after because we had no storage. That meant somebody had to go to the market every day, but nobody has the time to. Which means we have to bulk-buy for the week/fortnight and the amount is hard to judge. If we had a way of still buying daily, it'd be both waste-efficient and cost-efficient (for the consumer).

    Cheaper, daily home delivery?

  • rate this

    Comment number 266.

    With the amount of ready meals and processed food we consume these days, I'd have thought the food manufacturers could use the 30% of 'mis-shapen' fruit and veg in those products. Who cares what a tomato looked like before it went into a tin of soup or on top of a pizza?

  • rate this

    Comment number 265.

    This is actually quite reassuring. It means there is room for improvement. If we used all the food we produced, then we'd be in serious trouble as the population increased. The danger of overpopulation isn't the number of people, It's the amount of land we have available to feed them.

    As for people complaining about GM, we've been genetically modifying our food for the last 10,000 years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 264.

    It's all down to our disposable society. Home cooking is becoming a thing of the past, as takeaway (eat as you walk) food becomes the norm. I'm amazed some folk can even be bothered to remove the wrappers !! Some households don't even know what's in the fridge, so they buy duplicate stuff which ends up getting thrown away. Food processing firms have got it down to a fine art, supplying muppets !

  • rate this

    Comment number 263.

    For decades supermarkets have been trying to create a 'shopping experience' - uniformed fruit/veg, false smells pumped out,we're even subject to assistants who are instructed what to say to us. All to encourage us in & buy more than we need- it's very subtle, like putting the milk at the back of the shop - they ALL do it. They'll never be reigned in but we can be aware of their subterfuge & resist


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