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Bringing an end to the food waste shame

04-Aug-2008

Have you ever scavenged through a supermarket bin looking for your next meal? It’s a strange question to put to business readers – and most would shrink at the thought. But that’s just how the ‘freegans’ decide what’s for dinner.

Freegans are not poor. They can afford to buy food first-hand, but they would rather live off discarded, yet perfectly edible food that others do not want than leave it to clog up land fill sites.

It’s a pretty poor reflection of our food system that some green crusaders are so fed up with so much food being thrown away they have taken to such extreme measures as rummaging through rubbish.

It is estimated that one third of all waste going to landfill comes from the food sector, and one quarter of this could have been consumed. Rich pickings for a freegan, yet statistically deplorable considering the shortages that currently dog the food supply.

Today’s food crisis has come about through a variety of factors. The high cost of oil, a growing population, poor harvests and diverting grains to use for biofuels have all been cited as the key causes of the troubles.

The causes are happening at a grand scale and proposed solutions, such as genetic modification and curbing biofuels targets, are equally high level. But that should not stop each and every one of us – industry and consumers alike – from doing our bit.

Older generations have told me that today’s society is set on creating new systems instead of fixing old ones, and the food crisis is no different. It is time to go back to basics and shore up the foundations to the system, which is failing to prevent food ending up rotting in landfills while people elsewhere are starving.

The recent publication of “Food Matters: Towards a strategy for the 21st century,” cited figures on the overwhelming amount of food wasted in the UK and prompted Prime Minister Gordon Brown to call for saving food to be made a priority.

It showed that UK consumers are throwing away a total of £10bn worth of food each year. It said that the widespread concern about soaring food prices “sits awkwardly” alongside proof that consumers dispose of 6.7m tonnes of food waste each year, 4.1m tonnes of which could have been eaten. This equates to £420 per household every year.

So if you’re worried about food prices, step one: Stop throwing so much of it away!

But what about the food that is thrown out before it even gets to the consumer? According to the Waste and Resources Action Programme, 4.1m tonnes of food waste coming solely from food manufacturers in the UK every year.

The food industry must also take a multifaceted approach to reducing waste throughout the production and supply chain.

This includes taking responsibility for where its finished products end up; finding ways to use by-products of the production process; and passing on technical know-how to developing countries to help feed their populations more efficiently.

Redistribution schemes such as FareShare can help reduce the 1.6m tonnes coming from retailers. This UK charity offers tailored solutions to the food industry by taking companies’ surplus and waste and distributing the edible food through a community network of over 500 organisations that help disadvantaged people.

Last year, FareShare helped save 2,000 tonnes of edible food from landfill, providing meals for 3.3m people. This in turn meant 13,000 tonnes less carbon dioxide was emitted into the environment.

It is important for manufacturers and retailers to embrace such voluntary actions – freeganism on a large, organised scale, if you will. If they don’t, governments may well clamp down and introduce strict regulations that force companies to implement programmes at a faster pace.

Beyond just redistributing finished food products, new technology means waste products can also be recycled back into the food system. This is an area in which the food industry is already making progress – and it needs to keep up the pace.

Ingredients developers are coming up with new ways to incorporate by-products into new formulations. Examples from recent research include using waste tomato pulp as a cheap thickener for tomato ketchup, and cauliflower waste to add fibre to snacks.

Nor is the food waste issue just one to tackle in our own back yards. Western companies can help the countries thousands of miles away by using their expertise to educate workers and improve technology.

According to the World Resources Institute, up to 40 per cent of food harvested in the developing world can be lost before it is consumed owing to the inadequacies of processing, storage and transport.

More and more companies are investing in improved systems at a grass roots level, as corporate responsibility becomes more strategic, with companies helping the communities in which they operate, and as sustainable production becomes evermore important to ensuring the supply chain.

I am not usually one to wish hunger on anyone. But in the case of the freegans – and I am sure they would agree – when their stomachs are rumbling for want of enough wasted food to live off then we’ll know we’ve managed the waste issue.
Laura Crowley is a reporter for FoodNavigator. She holds a masters degree in journalism. If you would like to comment on this article, please email laura.crowley'at'decisionnews.com.

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