Defra faces threat of legal action over its u-turn on food waste law

14th Sep 23 by Christina O'Sullivan

Mandatory food waste reporting is a no-brainer, and the government can’t simply ditch it if it is to tackle the climate emergency.

Our lawyers have written to the Secretary of State for Defra in view of launching legal proceedings for failing to take meaningful action to tackle food waste. 

This follows the government’s announcement that it is scrapping plans to introduce mandatory food waste reporting, despite 99% of respondents to the government’s consultation supporting mandatory food waste reporting for large and medium food businesses, including the majority of food businesses. The legality of the consultation is being challenged on grounds that the government’s decision is not based on a reasonable or rational view of the evidence it received. The decision is also based on an inadequate impact assessment, ignores advice from the government’s own experts, the Climate Change Committee, and fails to take into account the emissions savings that would result from making food waste reporting mandatory. 

An estimated 10.4 to 13 million tonnes of food are wasted in the UK annually, equivalent to approximately 26-33% of the UK’s 40 million tonnes of food imports per year. A study from the University of Bangor and Feedback found that halving UK food waste would save approximately 0.8 million hectares of cropland domestically and overseas[iii], which Feedback estimated could produce enough potatoes and peas to feed 28% of the UK population their yearly calories

The government’s decision to scrap its plans to introduce mandatory food waste reporting for large and medium businesses is perplexing at best, and potentially illegal at worst. Our lawyers’ letter to the Secretary of State sets out why she must reverse her decision, which flagrantly ignores her own evidence, the advice of her own experts and the preference of the vast majority of consultation respondents. Mandatory food waste reporting is a no-brainer, and the government can’t simply ditch it if it is to tackle the climate emergency.”  Carina Millstone, Executive Director of Feedback

Responses to the consultation highlighted the importance of mandatory reporting as voluntary measures have failed. 70% of the companies that signed up to the Food Waste Reduction Roadmap  were still not reporting data publicly in 2021. Furthermore, the need to measure farm level food waste was also highlighted; with a primary producer stating “There is a risk that if primary production food waste and surplus is not included in mandatory reporting that farmers will continue to suffer the costs of waste.” Yet the colossal amounts of waste at farm level continue to be ignored by Defra. 

Food waste is a key climate change issue as it causes about 10% of global emissions. To meet climate change targets the government must take meaningful steps to reduce food waste. Earlier this year, Feedback won the right to challenge Defra’s National Food Strategy on the basis that it failed to take into account ministers’ duties to cut carbon emissions. 

Olivia Blake MP for Sheffield, Hallam has this week tabled an Early Day Motion calling for the introduction of mandatory food waste reporting for medium and large businesses, for the whole supply chain. The EDM 1611 is signed by a cross-party range of MPs including Caroline Lucas.

The legal letter, which is supported by a coalition of social enterprises including Toast Ale, DASH water and Olio, argues that the government appears to have ignored expert advice, including from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) and waste experts Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP). The CCC advised that mandatory reporting should be introduced by 2022.

Instead of mandatory reporting, the government is exploring the expansion of voluntary reporting run by WRAP until at least 2025. WRAP have themselves said that “mandatory food surplus and waste reporting are essential” because of the “disappointing” lack of voluntary reporting by businesses, and warned Defra in the government’s impact assessment that “enhanced voluntary reporting” would be “more expensive” than mandatory food waste reporting “with significantly less food waste being targeted”. 

The letter argues that the government ignored vital evidence relating to the potential cost savings arising as a result of mandatory reporting. The government had defended scrapping the legislation citing costs to businesses of implementing the regulations potentially driving food inflation – but the government’s own impact assessment found that food waste currently costs the UK £19 billion, and any costs from measurement and reporting of food waste would be offset by only 0.25% reductions in food waste.. The impact assessment estimates that food waste measurement costs only an estimated £19 per tonne measured, compared to an average £1,189- £3,099 savings per tonne food waste reduced. The impact assessment found that “unnecessary food waste is inefficient, pushing up the price of food for consumers and businesses” and that reducing such waste “can help food businesses cut costs, which can be passed onto customers”.

Mandatory food waste reporting also had the support of the majority of businesses. 79% of retailers, 73% of the hospitality and 67% of primary producers responding to the consultation backed the introduction of mandatory food waste reporting . Tesco have said: “Publishing food waste data is vital and must be mandatory if the UK is to to halve food waste by 2030”  and more recently said it remains “critical” . Reacting to news of the law being scrapped, Waitrose said they were “disappointed”, and Ocado also said they were supportive of mandatory reporting .

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