Food waste prevention in a time of pandemic

Date : 20 May 2020

By Peter Maddox, Director WRAP and Anne Bordier, Charity Programmes Director, IGD

Following nearly two decades of research and innovation, the UK has become a world leader in the field of food waste prevention, with businesses across the supply chain truly committed to tackling this important issue. With the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic upon us, more immediate business priorities are rightly taking precedence at the moment, such as protecting furloughed staff and mitigating against business closure. However, through our conversations with businesses and trade bodies in recent weeks, it’s clear that food waste prevention is ingrained in the strategic operations of many businesses and remains an important focus for most.

Just before lockdown, WRAP and IGD were preparing an update on the recent successes of the Food Waste Reduction Roadmap. Despite the challenging times our industry is facing, we feel it is right that we still celebrate the commitment of so many businesses to the roadmap and highlight the benefits of food waste prevention measures.

In September 2019, one year on from its launch, 156 food businesses had committed to the principles of Target-Measure-Act under the Roadmap. That’s more than half of UK food industry by turnover, and double the number of businesses committed at launch. Since September that total has risen to 192 businesses, particularly impressive during a period of uncertainty around Brexit negotiations and a General Election.

We’ve seen a widening range of businesses joining too, with companies such as Veolia and Suez from the waste management sector to names from the hospitality and foodservice sector; including Burger King, McDonald's UK, and many others across the supply chain.

But as well as those businesses committing their support, there has been a significant uptick in the number now implementing Target-Measure-Act and sharing their food waste data with WRAP. That number grew from 121 to 142, helped by the one-to-one support we offer through our field force team. We also broke new ground by expanding the focus of the Roadmap, with guidance on how to use Target-Measure-Act on farm across all crops – whether hand or machine harvested.

The Target-Measure-Act approach was gaining traction with the food sector long before COVID-19, as a cost-effective way to reduce food waste. And we believe this tool will become even more valuable as a resource for the sector after the pandemic, as food businesses will need to manage their resources as efficiently as possible to increase their resilience.

New challenges – new priorities

The immediate challenges for business in lockdown are profound and far-reaching, with every link in the supply chain impacted. Just recently, Tesco reported its first week of one million online delivery slots as people switch to shopping online, while food sales are rising as people consume many more meals in the home. Indeed, WRAP’s citizen survey shows that behaviours are changing in the home, and people are acting in ways that will limit food going to waste.

As a result of the lockdown, hospitality businesses closed their doors overnight, creating short-term problems with surplus food. The problems for the sector once lockdown is relaxed are more difficult to predict. Manufacturing has been affected too, with reductions in some product lines such as bakery; and as spring takes hold many growers are anxious about the availability of seasonal workers to pick their ripening crops.

From speaking with many of these businesses, it’s clear that those who’ve already taken steps to measure and target food waste are seeing the benefits of those actions at this unprecedented time. This is particularly true when it comes to the need to redistribute surplus food. Many already had contacts with redistribution organisations, but others did not, and WRAP and IGD have helped to put businesses in touch with those best able to put their surplus food to good use.

One of the sector’s strengths in responding to COVID-19 has been the volume of food donated and redistributed to help vulnerable people. Through our connections with the British Frozen Food Federation, for example, WRAP notified redistributors of offers of additional storage space for frozen food. In April, WRAP published new guidance on redistributing food beyond Best Before dates, and the £3.25m COVID-19 Emergency Surplus Food Grant opened. Meanwhile, since the outbreak of the coronavirus, IGD has been involved in a workstream with Defra to secure supplies for those people who are usually reliant on food banks. Working with FareShare, IGD has been co-ordinating donations from supermarkets, hospitality businesses, wholesalers, smaller retailers, suppliers and manufacturers. And Defra just last week pledged an additional £16 million to frontline food charities, to provide millions of meals over the next 12 weeks to be delivered through charities including FareShare and WRAP.

Businesses are better able to identify surpluses to redistribute if they are already applying the principles of Target-Measure-Act. This comes from having established simple checks to look at where surplus is generated, and identifying partners to take this food. WRAP and IGD advise that businesses make Target-Measure-Act part of their business resilience strategies, not least with the UK Government expected to carry out its consultation on mandatory public reporting of food waste data later this year. The Food Waste Reduction Roadmap was developed as the blueprint to take the UK forward and deliver its own food waste prevention goals, as well as meet international targets. It contains all the information to help every business implement Target-Measure-Act.

With measures to protect us against COVID-19 in place for a while, businesses are nevertheless beginning to plan for when we return to ‘normal’. And it’s important that sustainability is part of that recovery process, and woven into ‘the new normal’.

While the latest citizen survey from WRAP shows that the public has adopted positive behaviours around reducing food waste at home, this is also a real opportunity for many more businesses to ensure they have a positive approach in place for preventing wastage. As we move towards the ‘new normal’, we need to ensure that businesses are equipped to operate in ways that are sustainable for the future. Adopting Target-Measure-Act and committing to the Food Waste Reduction Roadmap could help businesses move one step closer to this goal.