In the New Year, the conversation often turns to how much food has been thrown out over the holiday December-January period, and what we should be doing to combat this wasteful attitude. In reality food waste is a year-round pandemic, and needs attention sooner rather than later.

With 8 million people struggling to put food on their plates in the UK, and over 7 million tonnes of food and drink wasted in Britain alone, the situation is dire, but news from Tesco and the East of England Co-op has lifted the spirits of food charities, with announcements that will hopefully indicate a shift towards a more proactive waste-tackling attitude within food and drink retail.

Framing supermarket food waste

Around the world, 30%-50% of the food we produce annually meant for human consumption goes to waste, being thrown in the bin and often ending up simply being sent to landfills. While households are encouraged to make better use of the food they purchase, many say it is the supermarkets who sell said food that’re the real issue.

While food donations and recycling initiatives are pursued to varying degrees, in the UK hundreds of thousands of tonnes of food still goes to waste. According to self-reported figures from supermarkets, in 2016 Tesco wasted 59,400t of food, and Sainsbury’s 35,800t. This might seem like a lot, but the figures get even worse.

According to statistics from the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), and food environmental organisation Feedback, UK households waste 7.3 million tonnes of food every year, and this is just a small slice of the 1.3 billion tonnes wasted across the planet.

Redistributing food for human consumption – Tesco tackles the issue

In late December 2017, Tesco chief executive Dave Lewis unveiled plans to stop any food that is fit for human consumption going to waste in Tesco’s 2,654 stores by the end of February 2018, saying there was a stark contrast between the amount of food being wasted in the UK and food shortages in countries across the globe. “Last year we sold 10m tons of food to the British public,” said Lewis. “But even if our waste is just 0.7pc of the food, that’s still 70,000 tons of food. “

The Tesco announcement has been celebrated by Feedback, but the charity insists there is far more to be done. “Tesco stands out from the crowd in their enthusiasm for tackling food waste, but many of the supermarkets are united in inaction,” says head of communications and policy Jessica Sinclair-Taylor, “Supermarkets have outsized power in our food system, and its only right that they take action to tackle the food waste that their policies and practices create – whether that’s in store, or in their supply chain.”

Lewis also commented that as long as waste food is fit for human consumption he would much prefer it to go to people than into animal feed or fuel. While Feedback admits that food going to redistributing food for human consumption should be the priority, there is still a great deal of value in using inedible food for animal feed, and once that possibility is ruled out, composting or anaerobic digestion should be considered.

The call for clearer labels and the sale of older food

The East of England Co-op has opted for a different approach, and has become the first major retailer in the UK to start selling products that have gone beyond their ‘best before’ dates. The company’s 125 food stores have begun to sell expired but safe to eat goods for 10p, in a campaign called ‘The Co-op Guide to Dating’, encouraging customers to not ‘dump’ their food.

“We are committed to reducing waste in our business and The Co-op Guide to Dating is one of many initiatives we have instigated to make the East of England Co-op as efficient as possible, reducing our impact on the environment,” said joint chief executive Roger Grosvenor.

One of the main criticisms of selling food beyond best before dates is a concern for safety, but the Food Standards Agency (FSA) states it is fine to do so. “It has been proved time and again that date labels, particularly best before dates, are confusing, often inaccurate, and lead to food waste both in shops and in homes when people mistakenly bin food that’s still good to eat,” explains Sinclair-Taylor, “Recently a committee of MPs agreed with Feedback that ‘current date labelling is potentially misleading and unnecessarily confusing for customers’.” The UK government is backing a WRAP initiative calling for clearer label packaging, with environment minister Therese Coffey commenting that confusing labels can certainly contribute to food waste.

While the decisions of these two retailers hopefully indicates the start of changing attitudes, the supermarket waste situation highlights the unsustainable attitude rife in western grocery stores. Supermarkets would rather be seen to have full shelves rather than to list something as out of stock or unavailable, leading to over-ordering, and ultimately wasted food.

“We believe supermarkets must experiment with a ‘running out’ culture where an empty or nearly empty shelf at the end of the day isn’t a disaster – it’s a sign of success,” says Sinclair-Taylor. The Food Foundation estimates that 8 million people in the UK struggle to put enough food on their table every day, which is perhaps the most poignant indicator that full shelves should in reality take a back seat to full bellies.