How does one French supermarket outperform the entire sector in the UK?

How does the UK compare to other European countries when it comes to redistributing surplus food to charities for human consumption?

Latest figures show that while the 24,242 tonnes redistributed to charities from supermarkets in the UK marks an improvement on four years ago, it pales when compared to France, Spain and Italy, where food surplus donations are four to five times higher.

Data obtained from Carrefour, the second largest supermarket group in France with a 20 per cent market share, shows that in 2020 they donated 30,371 tonnes of food from their French supermarkets, the equivalent of 72 million meals – meaning a single French supermarket exceeded the donations of all ten UK supermarkets by more than 6,000 tonnes.

Why does France, a country with a retail food market roughly the same size as the UK, do so much better? The answer is important for two big reasons – food poverty and the environment. Every 1,000 tonnes of food redistributed translates into 2.4 million meals. And excess food waste is remorselessly increasing pressure on water and land resources.

With one-third of greenhouse gas emissions coming from the food industry, food waste worldwide accounts for 3.3 giga-tonnes of greenhouse gases per year. If the food industry was a single country, it would be the third biggest polluter in the world after the United States and China. Food produced but not consumed occupies nearly 30 per cent of the world’s agricultural land, leading to deforestation of the world’s major forests, including the Amazon and Congo Basin. All told, 13 million hectares of land are deforested every year because of the food industry. The waste has several well established causes, including overproduction, poor stock management and supply-demand mismatching.

Yet in the UK, signing up to food waste reduction targets and making donations of surplus food is still entirely voluntary. The government has chosen not to intervene and has allowed supermarkets and food manufacturers to regulate themselves. In European countries like Italy, supermarkets are given positive incentives in the form of tax breaks to up their food donations and reduce waste.

But in France, they use both, a combination of carrot and stick, rewarding donations with generous tax breaks and imposing legislation that makes it illegal for larger supermarkets to dump surplus food – imposing hefty fines if they don’t comply. This ground-breaking French legislation was promulgated in 2016 and transformed, almost overnight, the burden to redistribute surplus food. It led to French supermarkets installing proper systems and forming food donation partnerships with food redistributors, food-banks and charities. Since then, food donations have soared.

Should the UK government follow suit? And if they did – and donations rose accordingly – would our food redistributors have the capacity to handle the dramatically increased volumes?

The answer to the second question appears to be a resounding “yes.” Lindsay Boswell, chief executive of FareShare, the biggest food redistributor in the UK, said their performance during the pandemic showed how quickly they were able to scale up. “Since the start of the pandemic, and almost overnight, we more than doubled the amount of food distributed across the UK since March to over 2 million meals a week – at the peak of the crisis distributing more than 3 million meals. We have a robust infrastructure and more capacity than ever before and we are ready to work immediately with the food industry to ensure no good quality food goes to waste.”

Similarly, The Felix Project, the largest distributor of surplus food in London and partners of The Independent’s Help the Hungry 2020 campaign, also tripled their output. Mark Curtin, chief executive, said: “Felix distributed 2,700 tonnes in 2019, around 8,000 tonnes in 2020 and we are projecting 14,000 tonnes in 2021, a fivefold increase in just two years.” Felix have built capacity by adding new depots as well as taking over FareShare’s London hub and running a six-day a week operation.

But whereas most of Felix’s bounty came from the food surplus pile of retailers and manufacturers, much of the additional food redistributed by FareShare during the pandemic was food purchased using a £10.5 million government grant. If surplus food donation was mandatory like France, or incentivised by tax breaks like Italy, FareShare would have had enough surplus food without the government having to waste additional money to buy it.

In other words – under the burden-sharing principle that “the polluter pays” – should the government compel food suppliers to donate their surplus food and impose penalties to ensure compliance?

Five years ago, FareShare welcomed the landmark new legislation in France and spoke about it as the way forward, but today they are less likely to bite the hand of the industry that feeds them and are more circumspect. FareShare now tend to argue – publicly at least – that a voluntary approach is more effective.

WRAP also say that “good relations” between supermarkets and food redistributors in the UK are due to this voluntary set up instead of the “heavy-handed” punitive approach of the French. But WRAP are government-funded and so not really in a position to offer honest criticism of government performance.

But behind the scenes, The Independent discovered there is deep frustration among the various food redistribution charities at DEFRA’s “do-nothing” approach and admission that supermarkets “could and should be doing so, so much more”.

Labour’s shadow minister for the environment, food and rural affairs, Daniel Zeichner called the amount of food wasted in the UK “shocking” and called on the government’s “long-awaited food strategy” to “propose genuine action to tackle waste”. He questioned the efficacy of the current voluntary system and said that “ministers should look at how other countries report surpluses and waste because what we’re doing clearly isn’t working”. He added that they would be reviewing the French and Italian models and “will have more to say on this” in the near future.

Paul Morozzo, a senior forests campaigner at Greenpeace, said: “We cannot solve the climate or nature crisis without radically overhauling our food system to make it more efficient, sustainable and fair. Tinkering won’t do. We need regulation and laws to cut food waste.”

Friends of the Earth food campaigner, Clare Oxborrow, said: “For too long, there has been a problem at every level of the supply chain. If we fix this, we will prevent as much food waste as possible, leading to edible food surpluses going to food redistribution charities. Voluntary initiatives haven’t worked.”

But in the absence of government action, what are the actions that UK supermarkets must take to lift their food donations to the next level?

Mr Boswell of FareShare said: “First, we need retailer distribution centres to identify surplus food long before it hits supermarket shelves and divert it to our warehouses. Second, our in-store surplus food redistribution service – called FareShare Go – uses technology to allow supermarkets to message charities and track volumes of surplus food. Tesco, Asda and Waitrose are all FareShare Go partners. Last-mile supermarket food is some of the most difficult to redistribute due to its short shelf-life.”

Mr Curtin of The Felix Project agreed that more was needed to be done upstream. “The bottom line is that there is still a lot more food that could come to us,” he said. “For that to happen, we need the major food suppliers to design us into their food logistics chain so that we are not an afterthought. We need them to identify surplus food far earlier because that gives us time to get food to the growing number of people who need it.”

The need has never been more urgent. Ninety per cent of the charities supplied by FareShare say that demand for food from the hungry “will either remain the same as pandemic crisis levels or increase in the coming months.” Mr Boswell added: “There has never been a more critical time for retailers and the supply chain to work with redistributors to ensure their surplus food gets to those who need it most.”

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