We shoppers aren’t to blame for food waste. Guess who is
The Guardian, by Joanna Blythman
Last year, Tesco’s food waste mountain amounted to 59,400 tonnes. If you’re finding that figure hard to envisage, it’s the equivalent of 119m meals, and an increase of 4% on the year before. From this we can deduce that Tesco’s voluble commitment to reducing its edible detritus has yet to yield results. But is Tesco any worse in this respect than any other supermarket chain? Probably wisely, the others don’t publish their waste figures, but let’s just assume that if they had a better story to tell us, we’d already know all about it.
Tesco’s waste tally is certainly grotesque, but PR executives expert in techniques for smoothing over corporate difficulties would doubtless applaud the masterly way Tesco deflected criticism. On the day that his chain’s depressing results were published, chief executive Dave Lewis addressed a food industry summit where he exhorted food manufacturers to do more to reduce their waste across the supply chain.
After deftly passing the waste ball back to his supply base, Lewis reprised a favourite supermarket refrain: blame the consumer. “While the majority of food waste arises from the home, industry recognises the need to lead by example.” There you have the dramatis personae in Tesco’s food waste script: profligate consumers, suppliers who earn a “must work harder” rating, and enlightened Tesco, leading the vanguard in the national war on waste.
Just in case you aren’t finding the plot line 100% credible, a further emotional strand is woven in: Tesco promises to redistribute all its unsold edible food to charities from 2017. Putting a gloss on your waste problem by repackaging it as a food poverty solution is a tactic increasingly deployed by our major supermarkets. Ideally, from a supermarket PR point of view, the term “food poverty” would appear in every headline that contains “supermarket food waste”, for that allows our giant retailers to bask in the role of philanthropists who use their corporate might for the common good. It places a halo of saintliness around all their business activities.
But a waste prevention strategy should never be confused with a poverty reduction strategy. Crumbs from the rich man’s table is a shallow, and too easily self-aggrandising response to the unacceptable reality that millions of fellow citizens can’t afford to eat good, fresh food. What’s more, the red herring of food poverty draws attention further away from one essential fact about supermarkets we must digest if we are ever to make any progress: waste is hard-wired into the supermarket system.
When the supermarkets began colonising the UK grocery market in the early 1980s, they appeared to be a newer, more efficient way of feeding the nation. They promised vast economies of scale by virtue of their collective buying power and state-of-the-art distribution logistics that would bring every agricultural product on the planet to our shelves, 365 days a year. This precision shopping model, we were assured, would produce dividends for consumers in the form of lower prices and more convenient shopping. Who needs parades of small, independent shops when chains can feed us so much more efficiently, and for less?
Four decades on, it’s becoming obvious that supermarkets are incapable of delivering this promise. Why? They are retail dinosaurs, locked into a system that’s riddled with problems.
One such glaring issue is food waste. Far from discouraging it, the supermarket business model actively begets it.
There aren’t, to my knowledge, any robust statistics on levels of food waste in British households before the supermarket era, but I’d hazard a guess that they were much lower than they are now.
Our rubbish bins really started filling up when, instead of shopping for a little, as was needed, every day or two, we were persuaded to adopt the one-stop supermarket shopping trip. Theoretically, armed with a list, we could buy all the food we needed for a week. Nowadays, supermarket online ordering makes that even easier to do. Just press the same-as-last-week option. So supermarkets egg us on to overlook what we already have and to buy much more than we need. They encourage us to hazard a weekly guess about what we’ll consume, rather than focusing on what’s in our fridges and larders day-to-day.
If the untouched remnants of last week’s order are stacking up in the fridge when the supermarket van arrives at our door, most people will consign them to the bin, schooled to believe, thanks to supermarket use by and best before dates, that judging freshness is best left to distant experts. Once we sniffed the milk and pared mould off cheese, now we live in dread of poisoning. Better safe than sorry, surely?
But sell-by dates – the progenitor of use by and best before – were introduced by supermarkets as stock rotation tools, to help clunky, mammoth chains keep tabs on the unprecedented amount of product passing through their system, not primarily as safeguards against food poisoning.
Undoubtedly, certain foods sold by supermarkets do pose a very real risk to health. Around two thirds of their raw chickens are contaminated with potentially lethal campylobacter at the point of sale, even though they are well within their use-by dates. Yet again supermarkets point the finger of blame at the stupid, sloppy home cook who fails to slay the bacteria through thorough cooking, rather than eradicating infection at their factory farms.
And don’t forget that supermarkets have actively undermined our national food handling experience and skill by telling us that we’re too “time poor” to cook from scratch, largely because it is much more profitable for them to sell us value-added, processed foods whose apparent freshness is validated by reassuring dates. The bottom line here is that such dates are absolutely no guarantee that food is truly fresh or safe, yet they shape our daily decisions about what we eat and what we bin.
Battalions of quangos, non-governmental organisations, government agencies and charities see supermarkets as allies in the war on food waste, but in reality, they are a huge part of the problem. If we are to stop waste at source, we must look to and learn from the burgeoning grassroots initiatives that aim to relocalise and scale down our food chain.
The supermarket shopping model, predicated on super-sized stores, over-consumption, car journeys, ever-growing bills at the till, and putrid waste that we can’t keep a lid on, isn’t fit to meet 21st-century food challenges. Supermarkets are structurally incapable of radically cutting food waste in any radical way because it is, quite simply, an unfortunate consequence of their modus operandi.