What are Supermarkets Doing to Reduce Food Waste? And is it Enough?

A recent study by the Waste and Resources Action Programme has highlighted the levels of food waste taking place in UK supermarkets. But just what are Tesco and others planning on doing to reduce food waste, and is it enough to make a difference?

supermarket waste

The issue of food waste in the UK made the headlines this week after an alarming new study highlighted just how much of our food goes to waste throughout its journey from its source to our homes. As a result, Tesco have vowed to make a number of changes to their practice and their stores to help reduce the levels of perfectly good food which is wasted each year. But what exactly are they doing to prevent waste, and could they and other supermarkets be doing more?


The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) worked in conjunction with Tesco to investigate just how bad food waste has become in the UK. The investigation concluded with Tesco admitting that over 28,000 tonnes of food waste were generated by its stores in just the first half of 2013. Fresh fruit and vegetables were the most commonly wasted products, with 68% of food grown for bagged salads ending up being thrown away, 33% of which took place in stores while the remaining 35% was wasted in customers homes. 25% of all grapes grown were shown to be thrown away in the journey between vine and fruit bowl, and a fifth of all bananas suffer the same fate.


When it comes to food waste, both the supermarket and the customer have been shown to be at fault. Overbuying and lack of organisation with food are things that we’ve probably all been guilty of at some point. But with a bit of thought and preparation, it is fairly simple to reduce food waste on an individual level. But supermarket’s practice has been shown to play a huge role in the subsequent waste of food, with unorganised retailing, special offers which encourage over-buying and misleading sell-by dates.


Why is food waste so bad?


It’s easy to just say “wasting food is bad”, but have you ever stopped and considered exactly why wasting food has such a negative impact on us and the world we live in?


-Wasting food also means wasting the land on which the food has been grown, much of which has required deforestation in order to be used for agriculture

-Wasting food is subsequently a waste of the water used to grow it

-Bringing food from farms to our tables requires high levels of energy, generating carbon emissions through transport, production and packaging, all of which are in vain if the food is never actually eaten

-Wasted food decays in landfills, producing the harmful gas methane which damages our atmosphere and air quality

-The food that we waste would be greatly appreciated in countries stricken by famine and poverty, making it all the more frustrating that it is taken for granted here in the UK.


What are Tesco doing to reduce food waste?


The news that the actions of supermarkets can contribute towards food waste may not be surprising, but the study has finally provoked some action from Tesco, who are now in the process of changing their policies in order to reduce food wastage in their stores, and encourage customers to do the same at home.


For now, the main changes that Tesco are aiming to fulfill include:


-Ending “multi-buy” offers on food with a short shelf life such as salad bags

-Removing misleading “display until” labels from fresh fruit and vegetables

-Improve management of stock rotation in stores, particularly on bakery and other fresh produce counters, which currently generate some of the highest levels of waste in stores

-Offering clearer advice on how to store foods, particularly fresh fruit and vegetables, to prolong their life


What else should supermarkets be doing?


Of course, hearing that a supermarket is willing to change its practice to help reduce food waste is great news. But although progress is being made, there are a number of further steps that Tesco and other supermarkets should consider taking to really reduce if they really want to see an end to food waste.


Donate food which has passed its “sell by” or “display until” date to local homeless shelters


There is no law against selling or passing on food which has passed its “sell by” date, and with so many supermarkets in urban areas where homeless and unemployment levels are high, it is even more shocking that perfectly useable food can end up in supermarket bins instead of helping to sustain those who can’t afford food.


Reassess the labeling system which enforces “sell by” or “display until” dates on food


“Sell by” dates on food are not a legal requirement, though most shops use them to inform staff of when an item needs to be removed from the shelves (unlike “use by” dates which should be more strictly followed). Nevertheless, “Sell by” dates have been found to be overly cautious and dramatically shrink the window of opportunity for a product to be sold, leading to waste not only by supermarkets, but by customers who mistake it for a “use by” date and throw it away when in fact, it is often perfectly useable.


Draw more attention to food reaching its “sell by” date and the benefits of buying it


Many thrifty shoppers now find themselves heading to the “clearance” sections of supermarket fridges and shelves, looking to save money on items which are are approaching their “sell by” dates. Making customers more aware of choosing these items over newer ones is important, as it is the best way to keep items out of the supermarket bins. While the incentive of a cut price is good encouragement, making customers aware of where and when discounted food is available in the store, as well as the importance of using it helps to improve awareness and hopefully reduce levels of food being thrown away every night.


Of course, it’s not all down to the supermarkets. While many of us now try hard to avoid wasting food in our own homes, there is plenty that we can do whilst shopping to help reduce how much food supermarkets have to throw away. Our article on how we can help reduce supermarket waste explains more.

Image sourced: Eleventh Earl of Mar

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