Problem of Food Waste: Food for Thought

ANALYSIS - Research by the publicly-funded Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap), estimated that British families throw away the equivalent of six meals a week in food waste, writes Hannah Chilvers.
calendar icon 17 January 2014
clock icon 5 minute read
By: hannah

This wastage is reported to be at an average household value of approximately £60 a month, with a total cost to the UK of £12.5 billion a year.

The supermarket giant Tesco, at an on-going House of Lords inquiry in to this very problem, revealed that it alone generated almost 30,000 tonnes of food waste in the just the first six months of 2013. Of that total, approximately 41per cent was bakery items, and 21 per cent made up of fruit and vegetables.

This problem, however, is not restricted to the UK.

It is further estimated by the UN that globally around 1.3 billion tonnes of food goes to waste each year. This represents approximately a third of all food produced worldwide and costs the global economy an estimated one trillion dollars annually.

This scale of wastage is particularly sharp and brought into perspective, when it is seen in the light of the thousands of people, who are going hungry or even starving.

Despite their plight being regularly reported by both charities and the media, the problem of food wastage is on-going, with retailers and consumers alike showing little social conscience about throwing food away. This attitude of acceptance of waste is also confusing as consumers frequently report concerns over rising food prices.

So what are the main causes and what is actually being done to combat it?


Various reasons for the problem of food wastage have been suggested, with Wrap reporting that buying too much, serving large portions and confusion over food labelling being the main causes.

Despite ‘Best Before’ and ‘Use By’ dates being a familiar sight to British shoppers, many did not to know the difference between them.

Current guidance from the Food Standards Agency advises that ‘Best Before’ dates (which all pre-packed products are required to display) tell the consumer more about food quality than safety, indicating when a product may begin to lose its flavour and texture, but not that the product is becoming dangerous to eat.

These are distinct from ‘Use By’ dates, which are the most important in terms of safety. Typically found on foods that go off quickly, such as meats, soft-cheeses and dairy items, such dates indicate a time period, after which a product should never be eaten and may pose a risk to human health, even if it still appears fresh.

‘Sell By’ and ‘Display Until’ dates are different yet again. These are for the benefit of the retailer primarily for stock control, rather than the consumer.

Anti-waste campaigners argue, however, that such a system is confusing, and encourages consumers to throw out products that could still be perfectly fine.

Food promotions and consumer preferences for only selecting cosmetically pleasing products are also being blamed.

Tesco reported earlier this year that it is dropping some food promotions, after it revealed that 68 per cent of bagged salads were wasted, 35 per cent of these in the home.

Customer reluctance to purchase misshaped or oddly-sized fruit and vegetables have also been highlighted by the retailer as a source of waste.

It was only recently in 2008, that controversial regulations preventing the sale of such products were lifted by the EU.

Current Action and the Future?

All this highlights the prevalence of food waste in both retailers and society alike. But what is being done to change this?

One possible approach being considered is reforming the food labelling system, with the current marking of products with both ‘Best Before’ and ‘Use By’ dates being replaced by a simplified ‘one-date’ classification aimed at reducing customer confusion.

Greater food redistribution of unwanted products by both consumers and retailers to charities such as FareShare and FoodCycle, is also being encouraged and promoted.

Perhaps a more novel approach in targeting food waste management, however, has been suggested by campaigners calling for a relaxation in pigswill regulations. A law banning pigs from eating most types of food waste was introduced in to the UK in 2001, after a costly outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease was widely blamed on infected swill. This ban then was later expanded to the whole of the European Union in 2003.

An initiative led by The Pig Idea group, fronted by chef Thomasina Miers, food waste expert Tristram Stuart and backed by top British chefs such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, however, is now calling for this restriction to be relaxed.

The group is claiming that whilst the best use for food surpluses is through food redistribution charities, the feeding of food unfit for human consumption to pigs and chickens offers another viable option for reducing food waste – an approach successfully used in countries such as Japan and South Korea in a tightly controlled, centralised system on an industrial scale.

It remains to be seen what difference, if any, these measures will make.

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