Exposed: The big waste scandal

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

We know our eating habits are careless. But shocking new research lifts the lid on the masses of food dumped before it even reaches the shops. Martin Hickman reports

Lamb chops rotting in the fridge, bananas blackening in a bowl, potatoes mouldering in a cupboard. We all know that wasting food is wrong. After all, we're lucky to have enough food in the West.

Thankfully, being an Independent reader, you probably don't waste food. Indeed, almost no-one wastes food – or thinks they do. Some 84 per cent of the public told the state-funded Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap) they didn't throw away a scrap. Wrap wondered about that.

When it asked 2,715 householders to monitor their food use, their profligacy rose grubbily from the complacency. Using the food diaries, Wrap estimated last year that the average home spent £420 and families £610 a year on discarded food, adding up to 4.4 million apples, 1.6 million bananas, 1.3 million yoghurt pots, 660,000 eggs, 440,000 ready meals, and 5,500 whole chickens. A day. We might as well throw one in three shopping bags straight into the bin, Wrap complained.

If this weren't bad enough, new research has identified and quantified a whole new layer of waste that has been obscured until now. A new book, Waste: Uncovering The Global Food Waste Scandal, based on three years' research by author Tristram Stuart, suggests that at least 25 per cent of fresh fruit and vegetables produced in Britain is wasted before it even reaches the shops. Piles of imperfect potatoes, spinach, tomatoes and other produce are left in the ground to rot, sent to landfill, or to anaerobic digestion, which generates power from the foul gases that arise.

European rules setting cosmetic standards for fresh produce and the supermarkets' own, even stricter cosmetic standards are culprits. Until this month, the EU banned the sale of oddly-shaped or knobbly versions of 46 different fruits and vegetables. Now, 36 can be sold, allowing curvy cucumbers, knobbly carrots and wizened cherries onto the shelves for the first time in 20 years. However, the rules will stay in place for 10 fruits and vegetables, which account for 75 per cent of fresh produce sales, including bananas, which must have a specifically bendy curve.

As well as being as much as 40 per cent cheaper than unnaturally perfect shop specimens, such fruit could alleviate the environmental damage done by agriculture, which across the globe is marching into forests and other wildlife-rich areas. This "ugly" produce, though, may never make it onto the shelves because supermarket standards are even more stringent than the EU rules, hence the rows of straight carrots and spherical potatoes, with the honourable exception of Waitrose's misshapen line.

Stores pack shelves with every single line, because disposal is financially viable for them given the upside from potential profits on manufacturing costs (though this is not so for the public, which pays environmentally and financially for deforestation, soil erosion, water depletion, landfill pollution and climate change arising from squandered resources). Much food waste could be, but is not, used to feed the poor through community distribution schemes such as Fareshare.

The mass waste of fruit and vegetables is only part of the story, though. The EU's common fisheries policy results in between 40 and 60 per cent of fish caught by trawlers being thrown back into the sea dead, because there is no quota trading system as there is in Iceland.

Setting aside the extra resources used to produce it, meat is wasted because – in addition to household disposal of lean cuts – most people refuse to eat offal. Pig's trotter's, cattle kidneys, liver and other offal shunned here are treated as delicacies around the world.

Developing nations have a different attitude towards food waste. In 2008, a global crisis sparked by rocketing wheat and rice prices raised the average cost of food by 54 per cent, triggering riots in countries such as Haiti and Bangladesh, where the poor could no longer afford staples. This is where food waste, in addition to its financial and environmental effects, assumes an intense practical and moral dimension. Not because we should send mouldy tomatoes or stale bread to Africa, but rather because the West's needless consumption raises demand and prices for global supplies that would otherwise be bought and eaten by the hungry.

A more efficient food chain could also relieve pressure on resources; the energy poured into the 61,300 tonnes of tomatoes thrown away annually by Britons could be used to produce enough wheat to relieve the hunger of 106 million people.

The UN estimates there are 923 million malnourished people in the world, the vast majority in developing nations. The US wastes enough food to bring up to adequate nourishment two times this number. Stuart calculates: "If food wasted by consumers and the food industries of the UK is estimated and added to that total, there would be enough food to satisfy the needs of the world's hungry between three and seven times over."

Moreover, cutting 20 per cent of unnecessary world food production and using the spare land to grow willow to burn instead (rather than coal and gas) could slash climate change gases by 40 per cent.

There are practical ways to end the gluttony. Householders should start making shopping lists, freeze ingredients and make use of leftovers to ensure they eat up everything. Britain should force supermarkets to disclose their waste and tax edible food waste, and end its ban on feeding swill to pigs, who convert discarded unwanted scraps into meat.

In the Second World War (when there was a tangible enemy, rather than a seemingly abstract environmental problem like climate change or a moral imperative such as alleviating hunger), a Government poster proclaimed: "A Clear Plate Means A Clear Conscience". Sixty years on, we should salute the sentiment.

'Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal' by Tristram Stuart, published by Penguin, £9.99. To order this book for the special price of £9.49, go to independentbooksdirect.co.uk or phone 0870 079 8897

Meal by meal: What's thrown away

Breakfast

Fruit salad, yoghurt

A healthy fruit salad of apples, strawberries and grapes masks a hidden profligacy. EU fresh produce standards require 10 fruits and vegetables to be classified. Those too small, strangely-shaped or blemished to meet Class II cannot legally be sold for eating (though they can now, thanks to a change in the law that took effect on 1 July, be sold "for processing").

Together with uniformity standards imposed by retailers, between 25 and 40 per cent British-grown fruit and vegetables are sent to landfill, anaerobic digestion or fed to livestock without reaching the shops. In stores, retailers overstock to maintain margins and provide an illusion of abundance. Vast amounts of edible produce are dumped into bins, destined for landfill, or sent to anaerobic digestion. The yoghurt is fine – provided it is eaten. British households throw 384m unopened pots into the rubbish annually, many within their use-by dates.

Morning snack

Bananas

Like apples, strawberries and grapes, bananas are subject to the EU's bizarre rules, which insist they have a certain curvature. The rules specify "the thickness of a transverse section of the fruit between the lateral faces and the middle, perpendicular to the longitudinal axis, must be at a minimum of 27mm (1.06 inches)."

Why are all shop bananas the same size? Because foreign producers have to "grade out" small or misshapen bananas, which are dumped in ditches.

Statistics are hard to come by but one study in the West Indies in 2002 found 40 per cent of the banana crop was wasted. Retailers often throw out green (ripening) bananas due to over-ordering, along with single bananas that have become separated from a bunch. British householders bin £370m of the bananas that survive the beauty pageant every year – which adds up to £6 per person.

Lunch

M&S Tuna and Sweetcorn sandwich

Stores exert strong cosmetic and freshness standards in other areas. Marks & Spencer instructs its sandwich supplier, Hain Celestial Group, to jettison four slices from every loaf – the crusts and the slice next to each crust, for quality control reasons. It adds up to 13,000 slices a day.

M&S is switching its tuna supply to sustainable pole- and line-caught skipjack, but other sandwiches contain tuna caught by purse seine boats, which negligently catch huge quantities of endangered whales, dolphins, and turtles.

Other fisheries are vastly wasteful, too. Given the absurdity of EU fishing quotas, the jettisoning of bycatches and smaller species in favour of perfect specimens, plus retailer and processing waste, and domestic disposal, we may eat just 10 per cent of the marine life we catch.

Dinner

Tesco Chicken Balti ready meal, tomato salad

Ready meals are over-ordered to maintain 100 per cent stock availability, thanks partly to the one-sided nature of contracts with suppliers.

At home, shoppers dump ready meals into the bin because they have not calculated how much food they need. Only a minority make a shopping list. Many consumers confuse "display until" or "sell-by" dates with "use-by" dates (the only food safety instruction). Our use of meat is particularly wasteful. Despite requiring 10 times more energy to produce than vegetables or grains, much practical meat is wasted because we have lost our historic taste for kidneys, lungs, trotters and other offal, considered a delicacy in other countries, including on the Continent. Tomatoes are energy-intensive to grow but 61,300 tonnes are thrown out, rather than made into chutneys or sauces. By value, 60 per cent of lettuce ends up in household bins, the single most wasted food. Storing them in water like flowers preserves them.

Suggested Topics
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick