Whether it’s a fresh fruit salad bowl or a tray of Mediterranean vegetables, buyers of fresh produce know only too well just how much effort goes into supplying the various products that grace the supermarket shelves. Many therefore appreciate the great shame when these, and other good quality food products, remain unsold only to go to waste. Fortunately, thanks to charities such as FareShare, less good food is being thrown away in the UK, and, instead, it’s redistributed to people who need it. Produce Business UK hears from Mark Varney, director of food at FareShare, who explains that the charity’s bold goal is now to ensure that “no good food is wasted” at all
Food is “incredible”
Varney is keen to remind the industry just how “ludicrous” it is that so much good food goes to waste when in the UK alone some 6 million people are struggling to afford everyday essentials, like food.
“Food is an incredible substance,” he says. “[It’s] sometimes valuable, sometimes precious, often tasty, nutritious, it’s a necessary resource and it should be treated as such. As foodstuff or organic matter, it is still incredibly valuable. I just want to make that point. This is food. At some point, of course, it becomes useless, [but] very, very late down in that hierarchy.”
FareShare operates by taking food that is still fit for human consumption and redistributing it across the UK to more than 2,000 charities and community groups, including breakfast clubs for disadvantaged children, homeless hostels, community cafés and domestic violence refuges.
Thanks to an increasing amount of what Varney describes as “fantastic support” from many well-known food manufacturers and retailers – including Nestlé, Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s – the charity has successfully doubled its efforts over the past three or four years.
During the last year, for example, FareShare redistributed more than 7,493 tonnes of industry food and created some 16.2 million meals. Yet while these figures are undoubtedly impressive, Varney states that FareShare could be doing much, much more.
PHOTO CREDIT: FareShare
He says: “We aim to grow surplus food used to feed people in need from 2% to 25%. We think there’s 400,000-500,000 tonnes of food out of the 4 million tonnes of food that the food industry wastes that is usable and fit for consumption.”
Clearly, there is an opportunity for businesses in the fresh produce industry, and the wider food supply chain, to get involved with the FareShare. But, as Varney explains, there needs to be more incentives in place to encourage companies to get involved.
Putting incentives in place
According to research carried out by FareShare this summer (2015), it’s currently cheaper for food businesses to dispose of their unwanted food through other routes – such as sending it to the animal feed or anaerobic digestion markets – than to redistribute it to charity.
Varney says: “Our experience is that the cost of disposal, or of a business selling food for animal feed, which they’re legally allowed to do, is much lower than providing food for charity redistribution. So those are the sort of obstacles I have to overcome when I try to persuade the industry to give us that food.”
FareShare is therefore making the following requests:
1. UK government should acknowledge the existence of comparative costs of disposing unwanted food. For many, if not most, food manufacturers and suppliers, the cost of disposing food via anaerobic digestion or animal food is cheaper than providing food surpluses for charity food redistribution.
2. Existing government policy should be re-clarified so the food use or food waste hierarchy is respected. This means, explains Varney, that if a food business can’t sell that food it should be redistributed first.
3. To help achieve the first two points, the charity says there needs to be a level playing field that may include fiscal and financial incentives to help ensure food is kept as food and provided for charity redistribution, rather than being disposed of via alternative routes.
Many efforts are currently being made to develop several new food policies. Earlier this month (September, 2015), for instance, the government heard the first reading of MP Kerry McCarthy’s Food Waste (Reduction) Bill, which aims to ensure that less food is needlessly wasted through the food industry supply chain – from production through to retail – either by being prevented or being made available to charities.
Meanwhile, this summer, the UK government launched a 25-year plan for the UK’s food and farming industry. Nicola Hopley, Defra’s food waste team leader, also recently revealed that WRAP has commissioned new research to identify how surplus food and food waste could be prevented or redistributed through various channels, including food redistribution.
As reported last week on PBUK, UK retailer Tesco has outlined five solutions to food waste in the fresh produce category that it believes others players in the sector could adopt too.
Varney says he supports all of these current efforts but emphasises that he would like to see FareShare’s requests incorporated into any new policies that are made. He points out that in France, for instance, some 100,000 tonnes of food is redistributed, leading him to suggest that UK policy makers could assess the benefits of the incentive schemes that are in place in France, as well as other countries, that are better encouraging food businesses to redistribute.
He asks: “Is there an opportunity for policy to encourage businesses to prepare and anticipate in advance for those incidents when they have food they cannot sell?” Perhaps many people in the fresh produce industry would collectively agree that the answer to this question is “yes”.