A collective gasp rippled through the ether this month as the papers reported 30-50% of global produce never makes it to our plates (2 billion tonnes for those of you capable of handling mindblowing numerical data.)
The research from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers was undoubtedly headline-grabbing, with #foodwaste trending for the first time on Twitter. But these figures aren’t new (no data has been released by WRAP since 2008). Nonetheless, its release got noisy, and the more the better. With most of the factors (storage, transport, water) likely to take decades to fix, it’s angering to read that the attitude of cherry picking the best looking, in-date produce is the goal, binning the rest with not an afterthought in sight. Since when was our food in the running for Best Dressed?
Cosmetics, trendy as they are, surely have no place in the pantry when there are a billion hungry people to feed, yet the report says retailers are perpetuating it. Several of the supermarkets detail initiatives that avoid throwing food away, including Morrisons, which on its website says: “We always try to sell food rather than discard it, and discount items that are near their ‘best before’ date.” But according to a Channel 4 report last April, Tesco, Morrisons and Asda refused to disclose data on food waste. Campaigner and author Tristam Stuart suggested to Channel 4 that supermarkets should report annually on these figures to create competition between which chains are less wasteful.
Waste is occurring if packaging “is slightly dented, one piece of fruit is bad in an otherwise perfectly good bag of fruit, or it is thrown out in the warehouse because it had ripened too soon”, and the report says retailers are adding 1.6 billion tonnes of food waste to the pyre. And even once it makes it to our kitchen cupboards, over-conservative use-by dates are encouraging more waste. “Many consumers have a poor understanding of ’best before’ and ‘use by’ dates, and these dates are generally quite conservative, as they are driven by the retailer’s desire to avoid legal action,” the report adds.
Sean Gibbons, Managing Director of Food AWARE says his organisation maintains a focus on educating people about use by and best before dates, and as a result helps to defer between five and six tonnes of food from landfill every week, “for example pallets of surplus fruit and vegetables which are the wrong shape, size, colour, or a bakery product at its best before date but perfectly edible afterwards,” he says.
“We’re a key supporter of WRAP’s Love Food Hate Waste campaign but feel that more collaborative educational initiatives need to happen in order for people to really understand food labelling, are able to eat well on a tight budget and do not throw food away unnecessarily. There are so many campaigns, leaflets, websites etc providing this information but still many people in the UK remain confused over simple food labelling, says Sean.
Under my kitchen sink lives the compost caddy, laden with peels, knobbly bits and the juicy remains of a herb salad. Just the other day as I opened my veg drawer to reach for the garlic, I put myself to shame and found two onions nestling at the back, their finger-like regrowth pointing in all directions and a sticky residue staining the drawer’s innards. Its ghastly supermarket netting told me they were about three months old, and I’d let them go to waste by not using them sooner. Resolutely, they’re in my compost bin, not my curry. Fates like this happen in kitchens every day, and not only because a vegetable has tried to root in the corner of a dark drawer for three months, but because of that ticking time bomb also known as the use by date has gone off, or there’s a squidgy wrinkly bit on one side of a red pepper that’s otherwise begging to be fried into a fajita. To know the fight between handsome and ugly may still be happening behind the plastic curtains of supermarket sorting houses is going beyond.
Defra gave the news (of the stats, not my onions), a wide berth, instead tweeting statistics that reaffirmed its current work on the Love Food Hate Waste campaign. But it failed to publicly respond to the figures or suggestion that more could be done on educating us to sniff and see with confidence, or relax retailers’ acceptance of ‘wonky’ fruit and veg. While somewhat predictably, shadow energy secretary Mary Creagh promised a future Labour government would commit to a zero waste policy.
So while we wait for Labour to be re-elected, I’ll say this: let’s all be a bit more careful with our cooking, be inventive with leftovers and bring the sniff test back into our kitchen repertoire. You never know, it could get certain rules relaxed and we’ll only ever be better off for it – with our tummies full and our bins empty.