Are people who shop at Waitrose to blame for food waste?

20th Jun 18 by Dan Woolley, Head of Pilot Programmes

Read our response to Rachel McCormack's recent opinion piece in the Guardian about our latest report on supermarket food waste.

Anyone reading Rachel McCormack’s recent opinion piece in the Guardian could be forgiven for failing to reach a conclusion, on this and other matters, as she seems to be offering unanswered questions on a buy-one-get-one-free basis. Are supermarkets still liable for the food they give away? What are the legal and logistical realities of giving away highly perishable goods? Are people no longer capable of knowing when a yoghurt has gone off?

If the author’s central argument – that shoppers, not supermarkets, are primarily responsible for food waste – is somewhat overstated, some valid points are made along the way. For example, there is undoubtedly much truth in the claim that “most of us who live in urban or suburban areas have come to expect shelves consistently heaving with fresh produce right up until closing time.” This illusion, through which we are asked to believe in an endless abundance of (cosmetically perfect) food, is now commonplace. However, if I might be allowed a few rhetorical questions of my own: is this really driven by consumer expectation? Or might it be in the interests of supermarkets to create and maintain this illusion? Which came first – the battery farmed chicken or the value range eggs?

In truth, supermarkets are all too aware of the influence they have on our behaviour, which is why they spend astronomical sums each year on advertising, marketing and promotions. As we note in the introduction to our report: Supermarkets shape how much food we buy, how we store and cook it, and what food products are available to us, in what form. It is no overstatement to say that supermarkets shape the UK’s food culture – and the enormous amounts of food waste generated by British households. With our supermarkets beholden above all else to their external shareholders, the search for ever-increasing profits drives every decision: despite the fact that there’s only so much food we can eat, or fit in our fridges, today’s supermarket chief exec is practically duty-bound to sell us more food than we need.

“The report also criticised all supermarkets for overzealous best-before dates that lead to millions of pounds’ worth of needless food waste. Are we so distrusting of our own instincts to know when a yoghurt has gone off that we rely on the date on the lid?” It’s not quite clear at this point what the author herself is criticising: is it the best before dates or the feckless shoppers? Or the supermarkets? Or is she criticising our report for criticising supermarkets over their continued use of best before dates?

Whoever is being criticised, there’s good news. Following years of campaigning by Feedback and our allies, best before dates have failed to pass the sniff test and supermarkets are steadily beginning to remove these dates from their packaged fruits and vegetable ranges. (Hopefully, inspired by this small victory, the packaged fruits and vegetables will soon rise up and cast off their plastic chains). Another recent campaign win for the food waste movement is the removal of offers such as ‘buy one get one free’ on fresh produce.

There are many things, however, that still don’t belong in the bin – such as the thousands of tonnes of perfectly edible food that could easily be redistributed to charities and community groups. And here we arrive at the author’s most worrying conclusion: “donating the food to breakfast clubs for children in deprived areas, refugee kitchen spaces, or volunteer kitchens that work alongside food banks would be a PR disaster.”

The actions of the leading supermarkets point strongly in the other direction. In 2017, Tesco, the UK’s leading supermarket, donated almost 8,000 tonnes of food to charities such as FareShare (who received a total of 17,000 tonnes from multiple donors). Asda announced a £20 million fund to facilitate the redistribution of food through FareShare and Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest food bank network. The real PR disaster, a public storm that has continually gathered strength since the publication of our founder Tristram Stuart’s book, Wasted, in 2009, are the photos of supermarket bins overflowing with perfectly good food. Worse is the food that we never see, that is diposed off behind the scenes in digestors that produce bio-gas – if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that food is first and foremost for eating, not for energy production.

If there is one point on which Rachel McCormack and I strongly agree, it’s this: “we need to demand that they (the supermarkets) do more to tackle food waste. But we should also rethink our own expectations of and demands on supermarkets.” Yes. We have a role to play. We can vote with our feet and we can vote with our wallets. We don’t have to shop at Waitrose. We don’t have to shop at supermarkets whose actions lead to so much wasted food. In fact, we don’t have to shop at supermarkets at all.

And yes, let’s think about our expectations and demands. Here’s my first suggestion for the list: let’s stop thinking of ourselves as shoppers, or consumers, and see ourselves instead as active and conscientious citizens who want to be involved in building fairer and more sustainable food systems; ‘to shape our choices, not merely choose between them.’ I borrowed those final words from the inspiring and innovative thinking within Food Citizenship: it’s a good place to start. In the meantime, Feedback will continue to hold the supermarkets to account.


What can you do next?

Follow us on Instagram to see our work in action.

Follow us