Research from the UN shows that reducing and redistributing food waste by 25% would be enough to feed all the malnourished people worldwide.

The UK has one of the highest rates of food waste in Europe, discarding more than 9.5 million tonnes of food each year. Credit: Adobe Stock.

At Klipspringer, our primary remit is food safety and compliance. But the related issue of food waste is so urgent that our research expert Alex Blair has written this article to discuss ways in which food retailers can do their bit. It is the first in the three-part ‘No Food Left Behind’ series, which examines solutions to food waste from the perspective of retailers, manufacturers and consumers.

Every year, more than 900 million tonnes of food is thrown away around the world.

According to a UN report, if this amount were reduced by just 25%, there would be enough food to feed the 795 million people suffering from malnutrition globally.

The capacity to solve the needless food waste crisis lies in our own hands. Unsustainable practices, monopolisation, and a lack of awareness have so far prevented any meaningful change – but UK retailers are beginning to mobilise against the danger and inequality of food waste.

This mobilisation is long overdue. With one of the worst food wastage rates in Europe, the UK throws away 9.5 million tonnes each year (6.4 million tonnes of which are edible). In other words, we discard more than 15 billion meals which could have been distributed to the deprived and deserving.

While this waste is the responsibility of all participants in the supply chain, from farm to fork, food retailers play an instrumental role in decisions made around supply chain systems, public communications, and surplus food.

Read on to learn how UK retailers can have a positive impact towards solving the food waste crisis.

Rising Prices, Rising Hunger

Events across the past few years have intensified the repercussions of food waste. From the COVID-19 pandemic to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, international disruptions to supply chains have seen food prices soar.

These price increases have affected items as varied as grains, oil, pasta, meats, and coffee. Extreme weather events have ruined crops, while pandemic-related labour shortages have made it difficult to get products onto the market.

It has never been more important to put all edible food to use. Much debate has focused on how to increase overall food production to match the growing population. But investment and effort put into such ventures could be better spent on ensuring that current food production is spread more equitably.

Hunger is caused by poverty and inequality, not scarcity. Credit: Klipspringer.
Global oil prices have inflated dramatically, sitting at $78/barrel (£63) as of March 29, 2023. Credit: Klipspringer.

Why?

Globally, food production systems cultivate more than 1 ½ times enough food to feed everyone on the Planet. Every year, all the food produced but never eaten would be sufficient to feed two billion people: more than twice the number of undernourished people worldwide.

For the past twenty years, the rate of global food production has increased faster than the rate of population growth. Unequal distribution remains the problem – and the UK is a prime example.

The UK Food Retail Landscape

Nearly 14 million people in the UK struggle to get enough to eat. This equates to 1 in 5 of the UK’s population.

Large food retailers hold a unique position to address the food waste crisis and help this demographic. Through their direct links with farmers, processors, and consumers, these companies have considerable influence over every stage in the supply chain.

In the UK, the seven leading food retailers (Co-Operative Food, M&S, Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, and Waitrose) make up 87% of the UK grocery market. And yet, these household names throw out, on average, 280,000 tonnes of unsold food a year.

Leading UK retailers redistribute 24,000 tonnes of unsold food each year – but discard 280,000 tonnes. Credit: Leicestershire Live.

The tide is beginning to turn. For retailers, limiting food waste is more sustainable, socially responsible – and also more profitable.

Tesco, Unilever, Waitrose, and M&S are among several companies that have pledged to halve food waste in the UK by 2030, following heightened pressure from the government and public to limit food waste among retailers. But this has been insufficient in light of the sheer volume of hunger and waste.

Based on our twenty years’ experience working with organisations across the complete food sector, our team at Klipspringer have published this article to suggest several solutions that UK retailers can act on to lead the fight against the food waste crisis.

Wasteful Store Practices

Traditionally, the majority of UK food retailers have high aesthetic standards for in-store produce. Fruits and vegetables are often discarded for being the ‘wrong’ size or having uneven surfaces.

Retailers are known to impose strict cosmetic specifications on farmers, which means they only buy fresh produce that fits the exacting shape, size, and colour requirements. All too often, insufficiently red apples or unacceptably wonky carrots are unharvested or binned – regardless of nutritional levels and taste.

While this is partly due to consumer choices, supermarkets can initiate the transition towards reaccepting imperfect fruits and vegetables. Some brands have launched food waste initiatives, including Sainsbury’s ‘Imperfectly Tasty’ range, Morrisons’ ‘Wonky’ range, and Tesco’s ‘Imperfectly Perfect’ range, which has saved more than 50 million packs of fruit and vegetables since its launch.

Several UK supermarkets have seen sales soar on 'wonky' and 'imperfect' produce ranges. Credit: The Grocer.

Product labelling is another cause of wasteful store practice. Supermarkets could modify ‘best before’ dates to reflect the actual timelines within which food can be consumed to prevent food from being prematurely discarded.

Of course, retailers must err on the side of caution when it comes to food safety. Selling spoilt products can lead to food poisoning or exposure to harmful bacteria – but in most cases, the food thrown out is still safe to eat.

Measures like those introduced by Waitrose and M&S are finally moving against the UK’s outdated product labelling norms. Last year, both retailers announced that they would remove the “best before” dates from the packaging of their food and plant products to cut food waste.

Another trend is switching “use-by” labels to “best before”, which signify a period of time in which products are still safe to consume, even if they’re not quite as fresh.

Credit: Cath Strawson (Klipspringer).

This was swiftly implemented by The Co-op to help combat the £100 million-a-year of yoghurt thrown out by UK homes when it is still perfectly edible.

Eliminating all wasteful store practices is an important first step, but it does not directly address the need to share surplus food throughout the country.

Sustainable in-store processes regarding aesthetic requirements and product labelling must be paired with partnerships between retailers and non-profit organisations.

Redistribution

As calculated above, the UK and wider world produces enough food for everyone. The crux of the issue lies in equally distributing this food to ensure no individual has too little.

Organisations like FareShare have made a name for themselves by redistributing surplus food to charities and community groups that, in turn, use it to provide meals. Through these partnerships, FareShare have redistributed 130 million meals’ worth of food to vulnerable people.

The Lincolnshire Redistribution Hub in action. Credit: FareShare Midlands.

Since 2020, FareShare have worked closely with England international footballer Marcus Rashford, whose own family relied on breakfast clubs, free school meals, and food banks throughout his childhood.

Aside from donations and fundraising, Rashford has driven the issue of child hunger to the forefront of the news agenda. His #MakeTheUTurn campaign saw the voucher scheme (a vital replacement for free school meals during lockdown) extended throughout summer.

However, FareShare’s output represents only 1% of the 2.25 million tonnes of good-to-eat surplus food wasted in the UK each year. This is no fault of their own – private sector businesses must expand their CSR beyond predictable mission statements and initiate tangible action alongside not-for-profit mediators.

By forging partnerships with charities like FareShare, the UK’s largest retailers could slash their surplus inventory while tackling one of the world’s most pressing issues – which falls directly under their sphere of influence.

For retailers more interested in the financial returns than the social, ethical, or environmental considerations, there are several organisations which pay for surplus produce. An example is The Company Shop Group, which has returned £200m to the industry in the last ten years.

Regardless, for the leading food retailers that generate up to £50bn in sales each year, the profitability of redistributing surplus food should not be a major concern. A recent report by Unite, the UK’s largest private sector trade union, includes supermarkets among hundreds of major firms which have improved profits with price increases amid the cost of living crisis.

Partnerships with Farmers

Food waste begins at the production level – in other words, on farms across the UK. Large amounts of produce are left unharvested in fields every year due to some supermarkets’ short-sighted insistence that farmers plant more crops than are needed.

Retailers cite adverse weather, disease, and fluctuating demand as justifications for this. But if more retailers (and their intermediaries) start working directly with farmers, food waste could be significantly reduced.

How?

For a start, retailers could be more open and systematic in sharing forecast data for specific food items. This would help farmers to plan production more carefully, while preventing the overplanting of popular crops that leads to mass unharvested waste.

Sainsbury's collaborated with 822 sheep farmers to prevent premature and wasteful slaughter. Credit: The Grocer.
Increased partnership between producers and retailers is crucial to curbing food waste. Credit: Klipspringer.

Additionally, UK supermarkets could share knowledge and techniques that enhance productivity with farmers. Toeing the line between helpfulness and intrusiveness will be essential here, evidenced by recent debates between traditional and technological methods for the future of farming.

A successful example is Sainsbury’s collaboration with 822 sheep farmers in 2016. During a season of poor springtime weather that delayed lamb maturation, Sainsbury’s followed farmers’ advice and allowed the lamb to reach their full weight before stunning and slaughtering. This prevented any potential farm losses, extending the lamb season by five weeks and boosting the availability of UK-grown lamb for customers.

Collaborative approaches tend to be fruitful for all parties involved. Instead of viewing farmers as contractors, retailers should treat them as partners. Together, suppliers and vendors could invest in the long-term sustainability of the supply chain, instead of maximising immediate returns from food products.

Short-term thinking like this will ruin the agricultural sector – responsible for 13.4% of employment in Britain. But, if enough of the UK’s household food names coordinate a shift towards partnership-led supply systems, farmers can share tips based on years of experience to extend the longevity, efficiency, and equality of food production nationwide.

Communication with Consumers

Finally, leading retailers have a responsibility to change the national discourse when it comes to food wastage.

Retailers’ unique position in the supply chain also gives them access to consumers, only 3% of whom believe there is any stigma attached to throwing food away. Supermarkets should use their collective presence across social media, websites, newsletters, and in-store messaging to raise greater awareness for food waste.

Free magazines from supermarkets such as The Co-op could feature waste reduction tips and the best recipes for leftovers. Creative PR could also see supermarkets sponsor and collaborate with chefs to demonstrate how best to utilise leftover ingredients.

Supermarkets could display messages with food waste statistics and tips for leftovers. Credit: Manchester Evening News.

According to a report by Sainsbury’s, 37% of the population admit to not using leftovers, but those who do save, on average, £260 per year. Other money-saving habits not related to food waste have become far more normalised, such as turning off the light when leaving a room – despite this saving just £15 per year.

If consumers were better educated on cost-reducing, food-waste-cutting tricks – from list writing to meal planning – they would likely put them into practice. Changing habits and attitudes is a long-term process, in which leading retailers can play an important, educational role.

Advantages For All Parties

As the highest earners and most influential decision-makers in the supply chain, UK retailers have the most responsibility to eliminate food waste. Household names like Tesco, Asda, and M&S stand to gain much by designing a circular strategy to reduce food waste across the supply chain.

Food waste benefits no-one - but could benefit every participant in the food chain, from producers, to retailers, to consumers. Credit: The Dispatch.

These returns are social, environmental, and financial. Selling or donating surplus stock allows charities and redistribution platforms to stretch family budgets further and support those in, or on the cusp of, food poverty.

Environmentally, reducing waste decreases carbon footprints – and customers are increasingly less tolerant of businesses that let good products go to waste. Retailers can also reap the financial returns of getting paid for produce that would otherwise have generated no profit, rotting away wastefully on supermarket shelves.

Even so, retailers cannot do it alone. Collaboration with farmers, food processors, non-profit organisations, and agri-tech and social ventures will help supermarkets achieve their food waste goals, and strengthen trading relationships across the agricultural sector.

As the world population continues to grow, it will become even more important to reduce and eventually eliminate all unavoidable food waste. Credit: United Nations.

Interested in how other sectors of the UK food industry can contribute towards solving food waste?

Click below for the second article in the ‘No Food Left Behind’ series, which examines the crisis from the perspective of manufacturers.