Have you ever walked through your local supermarket and thought, “Gosh, look at this plentiful place full of produce!”? Have you ever realised that your local plentiful supermarket is only one such place, in one neighbourhood of one city in one country? In other words, there are millions of supermarkets on the planet brimming with animal products, by-products and cultivated produce…have you ever noticed how supermarkets are empty of food at closing time? No, me neither. And that’s because supermarkets don’t sell all their food at the end of each day and, due to domestic laws, produce which is perfectly edible but exceeds arbitrary sell-by dates will be thrown away.
According to a Guardian article from July 9, the EU wastes approximately 89 million tonnes (that’s 89,000,000,000 kilograms or almost 200,000,000,000 pounds) a year.
Those are staggering numbers, especially given the amount of people that cannot afford fresh food. Most of us take our access to fresh food for granted. An extremely fascinating study by UK-based think thank Overseas Development Institute sheds light on a case of negative feedback: “foods that become cheaper [processed foods] compared to others are likely to be consumed more” and in turn, this drives the prices of certain fresh foods (source).
Over the years, the EU has imposed strict guidelines for what fresh produce needs to look like. In order to make sure all farmers and producers sell similar produce and compete on a level playing field, there are certain standards of colour, weight and shape that fruits and vegetables need to maintain. Aesthetic features, in most cases, are not reflective of quality or nutritional value (unless something is visibly expired), meaning that tonnes of fruits and vegetables that do not meet the criteria can’t be sold.
Thankfully, these rules have been relaxed and only 10 fruits and vegetables are bound by such guidelines, which is that is a step forward.
Food is not only going to waste at the production level, but also at the retailer level. Supermarkets can and should be doing more to make sure food they no longer wish to sell is somehow passed on.
France at the forefront
Although the EU has recently adopted a resolution asking the European Commission to “encourage the creation of agreements” between supermarkets and food charities, this feels like a mere suggestion, not a requirement.
France, on the other hand, seems to be understanding the problem of food waste with a bit more gusto than its neighbours. Large food retailers can receive a fine of up to €75,000 (just over £50,000) for throwing away edible food.
Some supermarkets chains have shown to be very progressive in this matter. French giant Carrefour carries out an extensive programme of food donation and distribution, which, in 2013, was equivalent to 77 million meals. They have also donated over €630,000 (about £445,000) to food banks in four countries.
Not so easy
Unfortunately, the redistribution of food is not always a simple task. There are logistical issues – such as transport or finding recipients who have the facilities to store donated food – which are a hindrance to more action being taken by the supermarkets. More importantly, it’s cheaper for supermarkets to dispose of food than redistribute it.
Despite some difficulties, it can be done, as Carrefour has demonstrated. There are other ways to incentivise distribution: some European countries are helping the problem by offering tax rebates or even refunds to businesses that donate food.
Last but not least
Supermarkets here are, slowly, starting to take the problem seriously. ASDA has pledged £200,000 to pay for the transportation of edible food to FareShare, a charity that seeks to distribute food and works with many charities – but considering ASDA’s 2014 profits were over £700m, we think they could pledge more. There exist other initiatives, such as FoodCycle, a ‘social supermarket’ which aims to open hubs around the UK. They get their surplus from the leading supermarkets and sell it at around a third of the price.
But people do not think this is enough, as recent petitions (1, 2, and 3) have shown. Although the large supermarket chains (Tesco’s, Sainsbury’s Asda and the British Retail Consortium) have made the decision to tackle the issue of food waste in the UK, it does not yet feel that there are concrete strategies in place to reduce the amount of food they get rid of.
Still, the issue is being discussed and will hopefully become one of those things in years to come when we look back with embarrassment that we ever threw away any food at all. But it’s not the future yet, so we need to carry on pushing the supermarket chains for change and we also need to make every effort ourselves, as individuals, to waste as little food as possible.
And the photo?
I took that about a year ago at the Mark & Spencer’s by Cannon Street station in London. I could see staff putting ready meals, sushi and other comestible stuff in clear bin bags. I was a bit shocked and I hoped they were perhaps donating them. I asked a staff member what they were going to do with the food in the bags, “They’re going in the bin.”