Legislation is not the way to tackle the food waste challenge

Clara Widdison
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With France close to forcing supermarkets by law to recycle their surplus food, Clara Widdison, area manager of Community Shop, the UK’s first social supermarket, questions the risks such a move might have on producers

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s BBC programme War on Waste, which aired last month [November, 2015], featured the Hammond Family, parsnip growers from Norfolk who were unable to continue operating their farm because of the allegedly ruthless cosmetic standards of their customer, the supermarket chain Morrisons. It’s not the first time that a retailer has been publicly named and shamed for its contribution to food waste, despite the fact that the supermarket chains only generate an estimated 5% of food waste across the European Union and as little as 3% in the UK.

Arash Derambarsh, the councillor behind the legislation that would make wasting food at supermarket level illegal in France, started a similar petition in July to launch a European Citizens’ Initiative, an official appeal to the European Commission (EC) to start legislation across the EU to ban supermarket waste. Although this is a noble cause, the discussion to date has not addressed what impact such a law might have on the supply chain, including on growers like the Hammonds.

Supermarkets in France reacted angrily to the initial passing of the proposed law in May 2015 – later dropped because of a technicality – that would have carried heavy fines or even jail sentences for those found guilty of throwing away edible food. Understandable, perhaps, given that there had already been not insignificant efforts to tackle waste without state intervention.

In 2014, Intermarché, the 3rd largest supermarket chain in the country, launched its Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables campaign, introducing ‘ugly’ produce to customers and educating them about its quality. The scheme proved to be a huge success with stores shifting 1.2 tonnes of the deformed (at least by conventional supermarket standards) product within two days. The initiative, no doubt, was desperately welcomed by growers who were struggling to find a home for the non-compliant ugly produce, and often being forced to plough it back into the ground, use it for compost or to feed to animals.

But if it was at risk of legal action, would Intermarché have dared run the campaign if there was a chance consumers would reject the misshapen fruit and vegetables, leaving the supermarket to find another channel itself for tonnes of unwanted food? More than likely not. Instead, it’s not unreasonable to assume that supermarket groups might well be incentivised by this law to further tighten their already strict cosmetic standards to minimise rejected stock at their level, and push the responsibility for crop utilisation back down their supply chains.

The Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables campaign is one example of how the food retail industry is collaborating with its suppliers to innovatively tackle waste at different levels of the chain. There are similar initiatives springing up in the UK too – Asda and Waitrose, at different ends of the supermarket spectrum, have both introduced their own take on ugly produce – others have dipped their toes in the water too. I worry though that legislation like this across the Channel could catch the eye of our own government. One of the biggest risks of similar legislation coming to the UK is that state intervention would disrupt a flourishing culture in which growers are starting to benefit from supermarkets playing a pivotal role in fostering a change in mentality amongst consumers about unnecessary cosmetic standards.

Selling bent carrots or blemished apples at cheaper prices than their more attractive siblings is fast becoming the done thing, with Morrisons most recently announcing the launch of a wonky veg range after being unceremoniously exposed on Hugh’s War on Waste. This action proved too little, too late for the Hammond family who, tired of being at what they saw as the wrong end of an unequal relationship with Morrisons, revealed some of the retailer’s other business practices that they claimed eventually forced the farm into closing. As well as being forced to discard tonnes of perfectly edible parsnips each week, the Hammonds also blamed last minute cancellations or amendments to orders for their high level of wasted product and subsequent financial loss. It’s easy to imagine how, under any legislation requiring retailers to find charitable channels for unsold products, many supermarkets could be motivated to control inventory levels even more rigidly, increasingly cancelling orders when sales are slow and pushing more waste up the supply chain instead of risking bringing it in store.

Since Tesco became the first large retailer to unveil its waste figures in 2013, we’ve seen a huge shift in attitudes within the food industry, with more transparency and responsiveness to criticism. In this culture, growers and suppliers are more likely to be able to contribute to and benefit from open discussion about tackling issues that are affecting them without fear of punishment for speaking out. Punitive legislation on waste has the potential to create a culture of fear in the industry and in my view it would discourage open dialogue where it is very much needed. In turn, it could further disempower suppliers and further reduce their ability to negotiate with retailers.

Such legislation also seeks to deal with the constant stream of waste leaving retail stores, but fails to address the overproduction that high specifications dictate has routinely been required to keep shelves heaving at all times. A supermarket’s reliance on overproduction may financially benefit growers on the surface, but only if that produce is all sold at a fair price. However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the external costs on the environment from unnecessary production risks affecting future yields. The strategy of Derambarsh, in France, to deal with waste once it’s been produced misses an opportunity to tackle the problem in a way that offers an environmental impact arguably more vital to the future of our farms than the proposed social impact that effective redistribution of surplus food could generate.  

Derambarsh’s desire to force supermarkets to donate their surplus food rather than waste it is well intentioned, I’m sure. However, without extensive research into the implications of the legislation on the wider supply chain, it risks placing growers and suppliers in an increasingly precarious position. In my view, supermarkets across several EU countries have demonstrated a certain level of commitment to driving the reduction of waste without the need for intervention. The introduction of legislation would do them and the entire food industry a disservice.    

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