Food waste is a huge problem. In the UK alone we throw away 7.3 million tonnes of food each year. This equates to £13 billion. 4.4 million tonnes of this wasted food mountain was perfectly edible.
In other words, each household in the UK is throwing away £470 worth of food every year. This is quite literally throwing money away.
Not only that. How many hungry mouths could this shocking amount of wasted food, feed?
Globally, food waste is estimated to cost £2.9 trillion a year. That’s enough food to feed every hungry person in the world twice over. Yet food insecurity and hunger still exist in both developing and developed countries.
It’s clear that we’re not adequately distributing the food we produce. It’s also clear that the environmental costs in water, energy and space to grow food that is not eaten is more than our environment can take. With an expected global population of 9.7 billion in 2050, we can’t afford to waste valuable resources or food.
Supermarkets are partially to blame for the global food waste catastrophe. It’s estimated that supermarkets throw away £230 million of food each year. But fortunately, supermarkets can also be part of the solution.
Supermarkets and Food Expiry Dates
Supermarkets have significant power to impact food waste. Changes to the the current system of expiry dates could have enormous effect.
Confusion about what the dates mean for food safety causes a great deal of edible food to be thrown away. Few of us fully understand the difference between sell by, use by and best before dates.
Sell by and Use by Dates
Sell by dates are for use by the supermarket only. It indicates to them when a food needs to be removed from sale.
Use by dates are usually added to perishable foods such as meat and fish. It means that the food needs to eaten by this date as it could prove harmful to health past this date.
Most sell by and use by dates are based on the results of one off laboratory tests. Foods are tested each day for the number of naturally occurring bacteria present. These bacteria are completely safe but they continuously multiply. Once they reach a certain number, the food is deemed unsafe. How many days this takes dictates how many days the food is given on its sell by or use by date.
Best Before Dates
Best before dates are usually used on fruits and vegetables. They state the date before which the food is at its best. It’ll still be safe to eat after this date, it simply might be a bit soft or brown.
Food with a use by date should be eaten by this date. But best before dates on fresh produce are based on the supermarkets best guess of optimal freshness or taste. If a carrot past its best before date looks fine to eat, then it is fine to eat! The problem is, most consumers don’t know that there’s a difference between use by and best before.
With all this confusion and lack of consistency, consumers often wrongly assume that food past the date on the label is unsafe, and throw it away.
Supermarkets need to play a role in standardising this information. They need to present it to consumers in accurate, easy to understand formats.
We’d argue that fruit and vegetables don’t need any date. Consumers own judgement is far better.
We’d also argue that supermarkets should reduce the amount offers they promote. Buy one get one free on products such as ham or yogurts with a use by date are wasteful if we don’t need them.
Collaborative Efforts to Reduce Food Waste
Supermarkets alone cannot solve this problem. They can also involve consumers to help reduce food waste. Many supermarkets are now offering imperfect fruits and vegetables at discounted rates. Some also include recipe cards that explain how to use these products with minimal waste.
Smaller containers for in-store salad and soup bars mean that we don’t have to fill up with more than we need. Clear instructions on composting leftovers can also help.
The Challenge with Food Banks
Supermarkets can, and do, donate to food banks. But food banks have a limited amount of time to turn overripe produce around before it goes bad. Food banks are prohibited from donating food that has passed its use by or best before date. This often means that perishable products still end up in the bin.
Other similar models are popping up as an alternative to food banks. FareShare was founded by homeless charity Crisis and Sainsbury’s. It redistributes surplus food from supermarkets to charities and community groups.
OddBox collects wonky veg that would otherwise be rejected by supermarkets. It then sells it to consumers by way of a weekly veg box at 30% less than the regular price.
FoodCycle brings communities together by serving meals in some of the most deprived areas of the UK. They do it all using reclaimed surplus food.
These community-based models can be replicated to help redistribute food. But it will still take a nationwide effort to make a true impact on food waste.
A Waste Free Future?
Food waste is a complex problem, but the power and reach of supermarkets should be part of moving us toward meaningful solutions. Many are making progress, but the challenge is huge. More must be done to have a significant and lasting impact on reducing food waste.
What steps are you taking to reduce the amount of food you throw away? What else do you think supermarkets should be doing to combat this issue? Let us know and we’ll share your ideas with our community!