The TESCO tonnes – can their food waste be a good thing?

TESCO’s ‘confessions of a supermarket’ has quite rightly generated a great deal of fury amongst consumers. Aside from the staggering amounts of waste associated with shopping at their outlets, its also not just them. Is it less annoying that Waitrose and M+S create huge amounts of food waste? No. Will they be publishing their dirty secrets as well? Let’s hope so. I couldn’t find any real data. M+S do say however that produce that doesn’t make the grade for their stores goes to ‘Company Shops’ or is redistributed to charities.

What I find annoying about TESCO’s data is its presentation. According to the food waste hotspots it focused on – Bananas, Grapes, Bagged Salads, Apples and Bakery, its retail waste is barely 1%  – a bit more for Bakery. You can see the retail figure next to their logo, dwarfed by the waste figures related to agriculture, processing and us the consumer. It’s as if they’ve dissociated themselves from any responsibility. No one’s fooled. Confusion over use by/sell by dates, BOGOF’s, the demand for fruit and veg perfection … all of these things collude to whittle away what’s grown and what’s actually eaten. TESCO helped fund the Sustainable Consumption Institute at Manchester University – set up in 2007, so it makes you wonder why they’ve been so slow to change their practices. Of course we can’t leave the consumer out of the waste chain.

There won’t be many saintly types who only buy and eat what they need. The person in this BBC clip is probably representative of many and succumbs to the western disease of over consumption.  Food is slung through fear that it is off, the carrots have gone rubbery or the cheese faintly flushed with mould. According to recent UN report on food waste, one third of the food produced on the planet for us humans is wasted – about 1.3 billions of tonnes. It also says wealthy countries waste more food after consumers purchase it. It’s the other way round for poorer countries where more food is wasted in storage and handling.

The numbers are mind boggling. Put another way we could give 1 tonne of food to 1.3 billion very hungry people. Or half a tonne to 2.6 billion people, a quarter of a tonne to 5.2 billion people – whatever,  you get the gist. We could feed most of the current population of the world just on our waste food. Bonkers. Back in 2004/ 2005 I worked for DEFRA on their ‘Shopping Trolley Report‘ looking at the environmental impacts of commonly purchased food items. For a few years after there were a lot of buzz words about ‘carbon footprints’, ‘food chains’ and ‘life cycle assessment’, ‘field to fork’ etc. Then in 2007 the financial markets went belly up and since then minds have tended to focus on job security and cuts of various kinds. Now that they’ve released these figures, TESCO and the other supermarkets will be forced to act.

Food waste and sustainability is back in the headlines and supermarkets, with all the power they wield over production, hate those kind of headlines. What’s more,  after bankers/MPs expenses etc, the general public has never been less forgiving. Supermarkets have to rethink how they impose their will along the food chain.
These are still tough times for millions of householders, now facing huge energy price hikes. But food waste can become a totem for effective change and that has to be a good thing.

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