Reducing food waste - the challenges ahead

14 December 2017

There is increasing discussion around the issue of food waste in the UK and what can be done to reduce it whether through legal or enhanced voluntary initiatives.

The UK government is unlikely, given the legislative agenda being taken up with Brexit matters, to bring in new legislation but considers that insufficient progress is being made on a voluntary basis. It is therefore encouraging greater voluntary participation through more informal means. This encouragement appears to be working - a number of companies have recently brought forward initiatives designed to combat the wastage of food.

We bring together below some of the key initiatives being taken, both in Europe and the UK, to reduce food waste.

EU jurisdictions leading the way

Within the EU, France could be said to be leading the field. In March 2016, it made it unlawful for supermarkets which are larger than 400 square meters to send unsold food to landfill. Supermarkets are now required to donate food which is edible or redistribute it for conversion into animal feed, compost or energy where it is not. Supermarkets must sign a donation contract with charities or face a penalty of €3,750.

The aim is that by adopting this measure, France will achieve its target of halving the amount of food waste it produces by 2025. Whether it will achieve its aim remains to be seen - especially as there is some concern that it may be possible for supermarkets to donate as little as 1% of its surplus food and still comply with the legal requirements. This is because the minimum amount of surplus which must be donated is not stipulated. In addition, many commentators have argued that more needs to be done across the supply chain to improve the redistribution of excess food and that targeting retailers in isolation is not effective in reducing the total amount of food wasted.

Nonetheless, the French government's position has been successful in raising awareness of the problem of food waste across Europe. The proposals for the law were first put forward by French policy makers in April 2015 and prompted the European Parliament pass to a resolution in July 2015 inviting the European Commission to promote the creation of similar laws in all EU member states. In its EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy, adopted in December 2015, the European Commission recommended that member states facilitate the donation of food which is still edible but cannot be commercialised but did not go so far as to require member states to legislate to facilitate this.

Following the introduction of the French law, in August 2016, Italy passed legislation simplifying the donation of excess food by easing restrictions on donating food marginally past its sell-by date as well as offering tax breaks for donated food.

UK momentum

There have been calls from charities for legislation similar to that in France and Italy to be implemented in the UK.

Although the current Government is unlikely to legislate any time soon, in September 2015 Kerry McCarthy, the Labour MP for Bristol East, tabled a Private Members Bill which sought to require large supermarkets, manufacturers, and distributors to reduce supply chain food waste by 30 per cent by 2025 and to disclose the levels of waste present in their supply chain. The Bill also sought to encourage individuals, businesses and public bodies to reduce the amount of food they waste.

As is generally the case with most private members' bills, the Bill did not continue past its first reading. It did however, help to raise awareness of the issues surrounding food waste and food retailers such as Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda and Waitrose voluntarily committed to not sending food to landfill and to donate surplus food to charity where possible.

More recently, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Commons Select Committee published its report of the findings of their inquiry into the economic, social and environmental impact of food waste in England.

Some key findings of the Committee's inquiry were that -

  • There is little or insufficient enforcement of the Waste (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2012 which implements the EU Waste Framework Directive (2008) and sets out five steps for dealing with waste ranked according to environmental impact.
  • A limited number of supplier companies were signed up to the voluntary Courtauld Commitment, an agreement put forward by waste charity WRAP following the success of its three previous Commitments, to reduce food and drink waste in the UK by 20% by 2025 compared to a 2007 baseline.
  • Companies were being too conservative with their date labelling of food resulting in food that is technically safe to eat being thrown away. The distinction between 'best before' and 'use by' was found to be confusing for customers.
  • There was scope for greater redistribution of food - currently less than 10,000 tonnes of food is redistributed to charities in the UK each year but there is potential for around 100,000 tonnes more to be donated. However, the report acknowledged that many charities did not have the capacity to be able to collect, sort or store edible surplus food.

The government has responded to the report by, among other things:

  • Writing to major food businesses stressing the role that manufacturers can plan in reducing food waste and encouraging them to participate in the agreement.
  • Commissioning a review to be undertaken jointly by the Food Standards Agency, Defra and WRAP on food labelling which has since led to the Food Standards Agency and WRAP releasing information for consumers on the meaning of 'best before' and 'use by' date labels.
  • Indicating that there may be further developments in food labelling once the UK has left the EU.

However, it also noted that (i) it did not consider it necessary to impose a formal national food waste target, believing that the 20% target imposed by the Courtauld Commitment was sufficient and that further targets would not be a proportionate response and (ii) it did not consider it necessary or proportionate to provide funding to improve redistribution rates due to the good progress already being made on a voluntary basis and the risk of creating perverse incentives.

Retail initiatives

In September 2017, Tesco launched an initiative to reduce the amount of waste food produced across its supply chains. Tesco has pledged to work directly with suppliers to help identify and prevent any sources of potential supply chain food waste.

The initiative encourages suppliers to commit to cutting food waste in their production processes, with twenty four of its largest food suppliers which represent £17 billion of Tesco sales already signed up. The suppliers will adopt the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goal to halve food waste by 2030. This goes much further than the Courtauld Commitment which has been criticised by campaigners such as Tristan Stuart for being 'woefully insufficient' and 'preposterously unambitious'. The initiative also calls on suppliers to innovate to help reduce the amount of food wasted by consumers.

Tesco is one of several supermarkets to have partnered with charities to redistribute its excess food. It has been a signatory to the voluntary Courtauld Commitment since 2016 although the suppliers involved with its initiative are not currently signatories.

And more recently, following a three month trial in a number of its stores, the East of England Co-op announced that it would sell some of its tinned and dried food for a nominal price of 10 pence if the item was past its 'best before' date.

The European Commission launches new guidelines to reduce food waste

New guidelines were released by the European Commission in October 2017 which focus on limiting the generation of surplus food at each stage of the supply chain or, where this cannot be achieved, redistributing the surplus food for human consumption where it safe to do so.

The guidelines set out a unified approach to food donation rules across member states and encourage adaption of Articles 16 and 74 of the VAT Directive. This allows a member state to adjust the value of the goods donated to take account of their state at the time of donation. By valuing donated food close to its best before or use by date as small or zero, any VAT implications arising from the donation are reduced.

The guidelines follow requests from European retailers for more assistance with reducing food waste throughout the supply chain and for more incentives for charitable donation of surplus food.

The European Commission is committed to reducing food waste in the EU by 30% by 2025 and by 50% by 2050 in comparison to 2014 as part of its Sustainable Development Goals.

Future developments

Food waste is an important issue and there are likely to be further developments in its management as countries seek to meet their 2025 food waste reduction targets.

While the UK government has indicated that there is currently little support for new food waste legislation, companies in the UK are increasingly acting voluntarily to reduce food waste at all stages of the supply chain.

If measures introduced in Europe are found to be successful, it may be that there is increasing support for the adoption of similar legislation in the UK. Some companies already support the introduction of new legislation to create a level playing field where all companies are required to adopt measures to reduce their food waste. Relying on companies to voluntarily reduce their food waste risks a lack of progress in reducing food waste and so legislation may ultimately prove necessary.

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