Eight solutions to supermarket food waste

Deborah Gough
Food everywhere and not a bite to eat: Countries are coming to grips with food waste.
Food everywhere and not a bite to eat: Countries are coming to grips with food waste. Photo: Sasha Woolley

Britain's biggest retailer, Tesco, has pledged to give all leftover food to charities and France has passed laws banning supermarkets from throwing away or destroying food, forcing them to instead donate it to charities and food banks.

By next year, Tesco hopes to have zero edible waste. Just last year, the retailer threw out 55,400 tonnes of food from stores and distribution centres in Britain. But it believes about 30,000 tonnes could otherwise have been eaten - the equivalent to around 70 million meals.

In France, new laws last month prevent supermarkets from throwing away food approaching its best-before date.

In Australia and worldwide, one-third of all food grown goes to waste - some of it over-ordered, ugly, spoiled and unsaleable.

Some food is donated to charities including OzHarvest, SecondBite and Foodbank, but charities say much more could be delivered.

Both SecondBite and OzHarvest, which have contracts with supermarket giants Woolworths and Coles, say legislation has its place but they cannot have truckloads of food dumped on their doorsteps.

So here are some ways to reduce food waste. 

Eight ways we could do more to reduce waste and hunger: 

1. Logistics:

Supermarkets cannot just start loading up charities with food. SecondBite chief executive Elaine Montegriffo says it is not just having enough trucks and storerooms. For example, if a tonne of apples arrives, already bagged, with a couple of bad apples in each bag, but the rest are fine, who rips open each bag, sorts the apples and repackages them? Some organisation has to take responsibility for coordinating donations so the right food reaches people in useable condition. 

2. Education:

OzHarvest chief executive Ronni Kahn says consumers need to understand what date marks mean. Food Standards Australia guidelines say date marks are a guideline to shelf life. A 'best-before' date is the last date on which you can expect an unopened food to retain all of its quality, including nutrition. It can still be sold but supermarkets do not because it is consumers won't buy it. A 'use-by' date is the last date on which the food may be eaten safely, provided it has been stored according to any stated storage conditions and the package is unopened. Products with expired use-by dates cannot be sold. 

3. Food at home:

Ms Kahn says many households simply throw away any unopened carton or package that has a use-by date that has passed. It's socially unacceptable to give it a go. "Your grandmother never did that - she smelt it, she tasted it, and if it was good, she kept it and ate. I have drunk milk that is up to 10 days passed the use-by," Ms Kahn said.

5. Grow less food:

Ms Montegriffo says it's counterintuitive but if producers and retailers were not throwing away one third of the food produced, the cost of producing it would drop. "One of the main reasons people do not buy fresh fruit and vegetables is the cost," she says. If supermarkets did not over-order food, their costs would reduce. Unusable food often ends up as landfill, where it makes methane gas, which contributes to greenhouse gas which then affects the environment and, in turn, crops. 

6. Look to the UK's model:

In 2004, Britain's environment minister called together supermarkets and grocery makers to reduce waste. The commitment has seen supermarkets, manufacturers and packaging companies reduce waste through food storage tips for householders, increasing shelf life and reusable packs to reduce spoilage.

7. Look to Denmark's model:

In Denmark, a company accepts surplus food from other supermarkets and sells them at 30 to 40 per cent cheaper than supermarkets when they near the end of their shelf life. Ms Montegriffo says it sells out every day.

8. Legislation:

Ms Montegriffo says there may be room for legislation but it would need to be carefully crafted to ensure waste was not simply moved from supermarkets to food rescuers or another group. Ms Kahn said she thought government policy, initiatives and good will from supermarkets might work more effectively.

Six ways we are reducing food waste:

1. Good targets:

Woolworths has a zero food waste target by 2020. That's better than Tesco's food waste target because it includes food not suitable for humans. 

Last year it diverted more than 20,000 tonnes of food waste that would otherwise have ended up in landfill. About 3000 tones went to food charities, while the rest was used for things like commercial composting, fertiliser, electricity production and animal feed for farmers and even at zoos.

2. Using food charities:

Coles in the same period donated over 4.5 million kilograms of food to SecondBite and Foodbank, and more than 13,500 tonnes of food in total.

3. Buying ugly fruit:

Woolworths has introduced Odd Bunch, a range of not quite perfect fruit and vegetables, sold at a cheaper rate to customers. The range is seasonal, a spokesman said, but at the moment includes lemons, tomatoes, apples, pears and carrots.

4. Ordering less:

Woolworths is working to reduce the amount it over-orders by investing in its ordering systems, reducing the time taken to get food from farms to shelves.

5. Good incentives:

In February, Environment Minister Greg Hunt introduced an incentive for businesses to reduce food or garden waste in landfill.  Local councils, retailers, charities, hospitality businesses, manufacturers, waste processors and composting facilities will be able to use the initiative.

6. Talking about food waste:

OzHarvest's Ms Kahn says all the players are getting into a room to nut out the problem of food waste. In June, supermarket chains, the Food and Grocery Council, food waste forums and food rescue organisations will meet to discuss ways of reducing food waste to zero.