New WRAP report shows large opportunities for supermarkets to reduce surplus where possible and manage unavoidable surplus more efficiently

Without great Feedback volunteers these strawberries would have gone to waste.

Without great Feedback volunteers these strawberries would have gone to waste.

A new study published today (17 May 2016) by the Waste and Resources Action Programme concludes that over a million tonnes of food wasted by UK manufacturers and retailers, worth £1.9bn, is avoidable.

Feedback welcomes this new report as it provides a more granular picture of the amount and types of food wasted in the retail and manufacturing sector. It also presents significant economic opportunities in food waste reduction waiting to be seized by avoiding surplus in the first place, redistributing to charities ,and using food not fit for human consumption for livestock feed.

WRAP’s findings are not only significant in terms of the total figures – over half of the supermarkets and food producers’ waste is avoidable – but because they shed light on individual food categories. It is notable that so much of supermarkets’ avoidable food waste is meat, poultry, fish, and dairy – by far the most carbon-intensive food products on supermarkets’ shelves.

The report also shows that over 10% of supermarket waste could be rescued by food redistribution charities like Fareshare and Foodcycle, which would represent a four-fold increase in food redistribution, compared to the current suboptimal use of total surplus. This increase would equal at least 360 million meals per year.

Getting the full picture of the UK’s industry food waste

Nevertheless, the data published today suggesting that the retail sector is the most efficient part of the supply chain still give an incomplete picture of the food wasted in the UK today. The figures do not include the substantial amounts of food wasted further up the supermarket supply chains on farms and in packhouses. It also does not consider waste occurring in overseas supply chains, which happens as a direct result of buying decisions of the UK’s supermarkets.

Feedback’s Gleaning Network works with farmers across the UK to salvage surplus produce and donate it to charities like Fareshare. Our work with these farmers has shown us just how wasteful supermarkets can really be outside of their own stores. Supermarkets drive high farm level food waste by imposing strict cosmetic specifications, cancelling orders at the last minute, and making order increases that force farmers to hedge by consistently over-producing.

Our investigative work abroad via our Stop Dumping campaign, from Kenya to Guatemala and Peru, shows an even bleaker picture, where supermarket policies cause high levels of food waste for small- and medium-plot farmers. The UK is viewed across the world as the most difficult country to supply to because of its supermarkets’ strict cosmetic specifications.

WRAP have previously estimated domestic agricultural food waste to stand at 3 million tonnes, and waste incurred by farmers and exporters abroad delivering food for UK markets at 4 million tonnes. While these figures are provisional estimates and a lot more research is needed, it is important to consider them alongside the 1.9 million tonne figure calculated in the report released today.

We cannot ignore waste occurring outside of supermarkets’ four walls, whether in the UK or abroad. We therefore welcome WRAP’s initiative to establish a working group that will attempt to quantify on farm food waste levels and increase collaboration between retailers and farmers to tackle the problem and look forward to seeing ambitious action by the industry as a result.

The opportunities in tackling farmer level waste are also substantial and easy to act on. Already, some retailers in the UK and Europe have started to respond to public pressure and have taken measures to address food waste in their supply chains. For example, in response to Feedback’s years of investigations and campaigning, Tesco recently desisted their wasteful policy of trimming beans. Likewise, in response to Feedback’s challenges, Tesco and Carrefour audited and significantly reduced waste in their banana supply chains. Other retailers have also started to slowly relax their policies on cosmetic standards.

However, if the UK food industry is to achieve the ambitious targets set by the Sustainable Development goal of halving food waste by 2030, we need to see much more ambitious steps by UK retailers to address food waste in their domestic and overseas supply chains and tangible measures of much larger scale of what we have seen today.

Opportunities to use surplus food for animal feed

Importantly, WRAP’s findings also show that unavoidable food surplus which can be diverted to animal feed could increase by 20%. We welcome and applaud WRAP’s commitment to work with the FSA and enforcement bodies to encourage businesses to divert more food surplus to animal feed. The guidance published today alongside the report is an important step to support manufacturers and retailers in doing so.

During WWII the government actively promoted waste feeding pigs.

During WWII the government actively promoted waste feeding pigs.

We also welcome WRAP’s continued emphasis on diverting unavoidable food surplus that is no longer fit for human consumption to animal feed, recognising its significantly greater environmental benefits as opposed to anaerobic digestion.  It is crucial that UK and EU authorities remove perverse incentives on anaerobic digestion to ensure this potential increase of 20% can be achieved.

Furthermore, given the plight of EU livestock farmers and the EU feed protein deficit, the findings on meat and fish waste reinforce the need for the re-legalisation of feeding unavoidable surplus meat and fish to omnivorous livestock, such as chickens and pigs.