The war on food waste

According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the UK currently wastes 10.2m tonnes of food a year, costing around £15bn. Now Tesco, Sainsbury’s & Waitrose are among 300 businesses to have pledged to halving their food waste by 2030. As waste continues to be a problem, grocers reveal their strategies to stay on top.

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Since the year 2000, the UK’s functional food market has grown from £335 million to £190 billion in 2018. With all the food and drink bought by Brits, one can imagine the level of food waste that emerges.

When everyone watched David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II TV documentary series, public awareness on the outrageous levels of plastic waste that the world produces escalated to new levels. Yet as consumers and leaders around the world are taking steps to remove plastic waste, food waste continues to be a problem.

Aldi corporate responsibility managing director Fritz Walleczek told Retail Gazette that food and plastic waste go hand in hand, and that they’re both “crucial” issues.

“Both food and plastic waste are crucial issues”

“On the one hand, we don’t want to see excess packaging harm the environment,” he said.

“But on the other, packaging can play an important role in protecting and preserving food so that as little as possible goes to waste.”

According to Melissa Wade, a retail consultant at business consultancy BJSS, 81 per cent of shoppers in Europe consider food waste their second biggest worry after plastic.

“It is understandable why the big grocers are combating plastic first,” she said.

“However, food waste is a serious issue and shouldn’t take a back seat.”

It can be argued that supermarket chains bear a large chunk of the world’s responsibility in managing food waste. Grocers are increasingly trying to woo environmentally-conscious consumers with latest anti-food waste innovations. But the question remains as to how effective these strategies are.

One strategy undertaken by Aldi’s rival Lidl is the decision to not print best before dates on 90 per cent of its fruit and veg.

A Lidl spokesperson told Retail Gazette: “We’ve done this since opening our first stores in 1994, allowing and encouraging customers to assess certain products themselves, which in turn helps to prolong shelf-life.

“Our efficient ordering processes also enable store teams to order products on a ‘just-in-time’ basis, so that our produce is as fresh as possible, helping to mitigate unnecessary waste.”

Another supermarket that’s reassuring customers that eating produce past its best before date is in fact still edible and doesn’t lead to illness is Big 4 grocer Sainsbury’s.

“We continue to help customers understand the difference between Best Before and Use-by”

Sainsbury’s senior media relations manager Sophie Brazier told Retail Gazette that grocer has already amended labelling across the majority of our products.

“We only have ‘best before’ or ‘use-by’ dates on perishable food,” she said.

“We also changed our packaging to state customers can freeze up until the use by date rather than the day of purchase.”

“We continue to help customers understand the difference between ‘best before’ and ‘use-by’ and have updated guidance on packaging for some product ranges to help customers reduce waste.”

According to Wade, Brits throw out the equivalent of £13 billion worth of food waste each year.

“Use by and best before mean different things,” she explained.

“This is causing confusion amongst customers, often throwing food away outside of these date ranges, when it’s only the use by dates that need to be kept to for food safety reasons.

“If supermarkets provide clearer label definitions, customer confusion will reduce and so will food waste – it’s not rocket science.

Wade added: “It’s not just the money that’s a waste, it is the environmental drain on our resources to produce food that in the end is not eaten.

“Some supermarkets have been addressing this with food bank donations.

“However, these are restrictive in themselves as food has to be consumed prior to their use by or best before dates, resulting in waste.”

To further emphasise its food waste managment strategy, Lidl rolled out ‘Too Good to Waste’ boxes of wonky or damaged fruit and veg in March at its UK stores. At 5kg per box, they are sold for just £1.50.

The boxes are packed with “slightly damaged, discoloured or deteriorated, but is still perfectly good to eat” fresh produce. Since the trial launched in August last year, Lidl said the initiative has prevented over 500 tonnes of food going to waste.

“Use by and best before cause confusion amongst customers, often throwing food away outside of these date ranges”

Meanwhile, Morrisons’ introduced 1kg boxes of “soon-to-expire” fruit and veg for just £1 in December, which aimed to offer shoppers a budgeted option to help meet their five-a-day intake. Morrisons said its greengrocers ensure each fruit and veg is “condition checked” before put on sale in the boxes.

Moreover, food retail business Co-op Food, who recently struck a “meal deal” partnership with health and beauty retailer Superdrug, said reducing food waste is a top priority.

A Co-op spokesperson said: “This year we have announced a 29 per cent drop in food waste over the last three years. Our target is to halve our food waste by 2030, and we are doing this in a number of ways.

“We have introduced new systems that allow us to track our waste more accurately, which means we can forecast and manage our stock so that we don’t create waste in the first place.

“In addition, a new system to reduce pricing when food is about to go past its ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ dates makes sure it gets sold and eaten.

“We have developed new ways of packaging products to increase their shelf life. For example, we have developed new skin packs and vacuum packaging for steak which has increased shelf life to 15 days, and we give storage tips on Co-op packaging and carefully design recipes in our magazine and online.”

Wade said that only was the Co-op the first UK retailer to partner with the Waste and Resources Action Programme, it also launched the Love Food Hate Waste initiative to help shoppers reduce household food waste.

“While others such as Sainsbury’s, Asda, Aldi and Morrisons all have targets to ensure their own brand packaging is recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025, in my mind this is a very narrow approach to reduce plastic and why Tesco and Co-op are the front runners,” she explained.

In mid-May, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Aldi and Waitrose joined the 300 businesses to pledge halving food waste by 2030, after Environment Secretary Michael Gove spoke at the Step Up to the Plate event in London and urged supermarkets to pledge halving food waste by 2030 or risk facing government fines.

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