The Times tells us that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is demanding that food retailers agree to tough targets on reducing food waste, or else face legislation.
One of the things DEFRA wants to see happen is an end to “bogofs” – buy-one, get-one-free deals which allegedly cause people to buy too much food, which then goes to waste as the extra portions moulder uneaten in the nation’s fridges. The Times front page says that a third of all food is wasted: this mysteriously becomes half in their columnist Melanie Reid’s Notebook.
I found these figures difficult to believe, so I accessed the report on which they are based (The food we waste, published last year by WRAP, a quango devoted to cutting waste).
The headline figures are indeed exaggerated. This fascinating and meticulously researched report makes careful, if sometimes debatable, decisions on how to classify food waste. Some waste is clearly unavoidable – chicken bones, banana skins, coffee grounds. If we focus on more obviously avoidable waste – unopened yoghurts, discarded apples and so on – the proportion of food which is wasted is much lower – by my calculation about 19% by weight of all food purchased. Even this may be an exaggeration, as around half of this is classified by consumers as inedible or “left on the plate” – this latter will include gristle, burnt toast and so on.
We ought to try harder, no doubt, to eat up our dinners – but why does this mean the threat of yet more regulation? DEFRA believes bogofs encourage small households to buy too much when they should buy smaller amounts more suited to their appetites. Well, possibly, if you believe (as so many policy wonks do), that people can’t make sensible choices. However the most “wasteful” households appear to be those with two adults and two children, suggesting other factors, such as kids’ choosy eating, may be to blame rather than those wicked old supermarkets.
Food waste is an ambiguous area. Trends which the wonks dislike may have an upbeat side – they can be testimony to improved diet. Forty years ago, we ate tinned soup, tinned fish, tinned steak and kidney pies, tinned peas, and finished off with tinned pineapple chunks or some such. There is little waste from tinned food: fresh fish, vegetables and fruit inevitably generate more. But is that bad? Our diets are better for us nowadays, and certainly less bland and monotonous. And, for heaven’s sake, if we’re leaving stuff on the plate we’re at least not contributing to the obesity epidemic which the supermarkets are also castigated for causing.
Waste management is a serious issue and so is our diet, but DEFRA’s latest threats look like a silly season attempt to generate headlines by picking on the supermarkets once again. I’m with the British Retail Consortium, who say that retailers know their customers better and should be allowed to decide what’s the best policy on special offers. This kind of attempted micro-management discredits government policy-making.