Shops must shelve food waste

Supermarkets could work with farmers to find ways to sell food that does not live up to magazine-shoot standards

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Far too much food is wasted in a world in which so many go hungry. As we report today, a House of Lords committee estimates that, between them, the rich countries of the world now waste nearly as much food as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa.

We need to understand how waste on such a scale happens if we are to come up with the answers to this entirely avoidable failure.

Here, the committee – the usually obscure Agriculture, Fisheries, Environment and Energy EU Sub-Committee D, a true adornment of our Upper House – has done some valuable work.

It has looked more closely at EU statistics which suggest that only 5 per cent of food waste is attributable to retailers – as opposed to 42 per cent to consumers and 39 per cent to producers. According to Baroness Scott, the committee chairman, the supermarkets "can push food waste back up to the growers and manufacturers and back down to the consumers".

The supermarkets have so much control over producers that farmers prefer to overproduce rather than risk penalties for under-supplying, while "unnecessary and indefensible" cosmetic standards for fruit and vegetables mean that a significant proportion of food is never harvested because it does not meet supermarket standards.

The big retailers also have more subtle ways of encouraging customers to buy more food than they need, which ends up being thrown away. The tricks of the trade are well known – buy one, get one half-price; three for the price of two; buy three, get the cheapest item free – but it does not stop us falling for them.

This newspaper does not indulge in supermarket-bashing. The big food retailers in this country generally do a good job in providing high-quality food at prices that people can afford. They responded quickly and, in the main, effectively, when the horse meat scandal was reported. When farmers complain about standards for fruit and veg being too exacting or too uniform, the supermarkets are entitled to respond that these standards reflect what their customers want.

But supermarkets have responsibilities, too, and could do more to live up to them. They could do more to inform customers about when food would be simply past its best and when it would be risky to eat. They do not need so many Bogof offers and might earn some goodwill among elderly and single customers who feel that they discriminate against them.

In addition, they could do more to work with farmers to minimise waste, or to find imaginative ways to sell perfectly good food that does not quite live up to the standards of a magazine photo shoot.

Then there is the question of what happens to surplus food, past its sell-by date but safe to eat. The supermarkets have got better at giving it away to people in need, directly or via food banks, when it is easy for them to do so. But there are lessons to be learned, the Lords committee found, from how such things are done in other countries, such as the Netherlands.

While we have the supermarkets' attention, there is also more that they could do to inform customers about the animal welfare standards of their meat, eggs and dairy products. And they could do more about excessive packaging, too.

It may be that the main responsibility to avoid wasting food, as it is to eat sensibly and healthily, lies with the customer. But the fact remains that supermarkets are responsible for more than 5 per cent of total food waste recorded by official EU statistics. They are not quite as virtuous as the raw numbers suggest.

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