Remember when your mum used to tell you to finish everything on your plate because people in Africa are starving? Well, it’s a nice thought. But then there’s the bigger problem.
The FT has an excerpt from a new book by Tristram Stuart: Waste: Uncovering The Global Food Scandal:
By the time I left school, I had learnt that I could live off the food being thrown away by supermarkets and other retailers. But it wasn’t until university that I understood the true scale of the waste. A homeless man called Spider – for the web of tattoos on his face – introduced me to the subterranean loading bay beneath Sainsbury’s. When I said I didn’t want to take food that homeless people were relying on, Spider laughed. “You don’t understand, mate,” he said. “If all the homeless in the country got their food out of this bin, there’d still be enough left for you.”
It was true: the quantity of good food that Sainsbury’s placed in its six wheelie bins defied explanation. And neither that particular Sainsbury’s, nor Sainsbury’s in general, was exceptional. In one day, I discovered, a grocery store can easily throw out enough to feed more than 100 people. Back then, most supermarket managers were not interested in the issue of what to do with unsold food. Their activities were constrained by company policies which determined that surplus should be sent to landfill. They were in the business of selling food – and many bosses believed that giving it away would undermine sales. It made more sense for the supermarkets to lock the food in bins and send it off to be buried, regardless of the social and environmental costs. And while the population has become more aware of food waste, this remains the default position for the industry today.
Recently I visited the bins of a branch of Waitrose and found the following, by no means exceptional, shopping list of items: 28 chilled high-quality ready-meals (including lasagne, prawn linguine, beef pie, chicken korma with rice, chicken tikka with rice, chicken with Madeira wine and porcini mushrooms); 16 Cornish pasties; 83 yogurts, chocolate mousses and other desserts; 18 loaves of bread; 23 rolls; one chocolate cake; five pasta salads; six large melons; 223 individual items of other assorted fruit and vegetables, including nectarines, oranges, papaya, fair-trade organic bananas, organic carrots, organic leeks and avocados, seven punnets of soft fruit, one pack of mushrooms, six bags of potatoes; a bag of onions and two thriving potted herbs (chives and parsley); one almost full box of serving-size pots of margarine; a box of serving-size UHT milk cartons; several bunches of flowers and a potted orchid. Apart from the flowers, not one of these items was unfit to eat.
Soon after graduating, I started to work on a media campaign about food waste. I took newspaper, radio and television crews round the back of supermarkets and showed them what was being thrown away. The level of interest was overwhelming. Early on in that process, a BBC journalist persuaded me to make a feature for the Politics Show in 2003. She set up an interview with Lord Haskins, then one of the chief advisers to the government on food and farming and the former chairman of Northern Foods, one of Britain’s largest food-processing companies. I was just preparing my tirade when Lord Haskins launched into his own: sell-by dates were absurdly strict and, by his estimation, an incredible 70 per cent of all food produced was wasted. I nearly fell off the park bench we were sitting on. This was the highest figure I had heard, and it was coming not from a campaigner but from a senior member of the food industry. My hunch about the scale of the problem was confirmed.
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