2014 marks the European Year against Food Waste.

With around 90 million tonnes of food wasted in the EU each year (out of which around 15 million tonnes is generated by the UK) the European Commission has set an aspirational target to reduce the amount of food thrown away by 50 per cent by 2020 across the European Union. Supporting this policy, the House of Lords EU sub-committee published a report urging the Government to take action to reduce food waste in the UK. 

The report "Counting the Cost of Food Waste: EU Food Waste Prevention" was published on 6 April 2014 for Parliamentary debate.  It makes recommendations to contribute to the policy and decision-making processes in both the European Commission and the UK.

Food manufacturers, supermarkets and restaurants along with the rest of the food supply chain will be most affected by this policy. This brief scans the horizon for legal implications of the report.

Definition of "food waste"

The report calls for a universal definition for "food waste" to address activities throughout the supply chain.

Environmental regulators currently rely on the Waste Framework Directive's definition of "waste" which includes: any substance or object which the holder discards, intends to, or is required to discard. The committee have expressed preference for a standardised approach to defining different materials and waste flows to capture food waste at producer level through to consumption.

Further, the committee proposed to distinguish between the legal statuses of farmed crops. Food grown but not harvested due to adverse weather condition should not be treated as waste, whereas food not harvested due to a change in demand could be subject to regulation.  

Implication for retailers

Retailers are regarded as key players in the supply chain for minimising food waste, due to their market influence over the behaviour of producers, manufacturers and consumers.

Main proposals affecting retailers are as follows:

  • A strong push for retailers to limit the amount of food wasted by farmers and consumers. In particular, the report suggests moving away from "buy-one-get-one-free" offers.
  • A call for redistribution of unsold food, where safe, for human and animal consumption rather than to be recycled for energy. Generally, food waste is sent for anaerobic digestion.
  • Creating financial incentives for supermarkets to donate edible unsold food to food banks rather than sending it to be composted, such as through amending VAT rates and offer tax breaks.
  • Recommendation for businesses to promote cooperation and shared financial responsibility with businesses throughout the supply chains. Practical considerations to achieve this includes the use of long-term contracts, and adjusting terms to prevent overproduction between different ends of the supply chain, as well as encouraging whole-crop purchasing.
  • Proposals for the UK government and the European Commission to review the term "use by end of" under the Food Information Consumer Regulation. For retailers, this means greater clarity of labelling practices, and better understanding of respective dates and food storage conditions.

Sustainable business

Reducing food waste is regarded a key sustainability issue for hospitality and retail industries, and it is no surprise that this report has captured much media attention. If implemented, the recommendations will form a policy drive for businesses to prioritise resource efficiency and waste prevention as part of their operational practice. The recommendations are likely to stimulate a culture shift towards improved demand forecasting and waste monitoring.

Some major retailers have begun developing systems to encourage consumers to reduce waste. For instance, Sainsbury's has developed Food Rescue, an online tool to inspire shoppers to cook using leftover ingredients thereby throwing away less food. A trend such as this is expected to increase in the sector.

Government response

The government responded to this report on 9 June 2014, agreeing with most of the recommendations. It also confirms that the UK will adopt a voluntary approach to controlling food waste, rather than implement binding measures on manufacturers and retailers.

While Parliament welcomes the use of innovative packaging and is keen to improve date labelling practices, the issue of promotional discounts not regarded as a source of household food waste.  

The European Commission is currently preparing a non-binding Communication on Sustainable Food, which is expected to cover the recommendations in the report.

Next steps

At this stage, the report sets out tentative proposals for change. However, given the direction of travel of the EU's food waste policy, businesses involved in the distribution of food and drink should consider reviewing their supply chain to better manage stock orders. Presently, cancelled orders of grown produce contribute to large scale wastage of edible unharvest crops.