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Food Waste

Volume 561: debated on Wednesday 24 April 2013

It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I secured the debate to highlight the importance of packaging materials in reducing food waste. I acknowledge that the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), whom I am pleased to see in her place, introduced the Food Waste Bill last March. She began and has continued a campaign to ensure that food that is safe to use but not saleable by supermarkets and manufacturers is donated to charities. My remarks will consider a slightly different side of the debate on food waste, focusing on how food waste can be reduced, and particularly the role that packaging can play in achieving that objective.

Many of my remarks will be based on the Fresher for Longer campaign, launched a month or two ago by the Packaging Federation, to whose chief executive, Dick Searle, I pay tribute. That body worked in conjunction with the Kent Waste Partnership under its manager, Paul Vanston, and alongside WRAP UK, the British Retail Consortium and the Food and Drink Federation. The campaign was launched on 5 March to show how packaging not only protects food from damage but can keep it fresher for longer in our homes, meaning that less food is wasted. The campaign has caught the public’s attention. On the day when it was launched, it trended at No. 1 on Twitter, beating the pop star Justin Bieber to top spot.

Why are the campaign and this debate so necessary? One key finding of research for the Love Food Hate Waste campaign was that only 13% of the public realise that packaging can play an important role in protecting food in the home. The campaign attempts to deal with some public perceptions.

To start with the extent of the problem, food waste represents a significant cost to all consumers. Throwing away food not used in time costs £6.7 billion a year, which is £270 a year to the average household or £5 a week, a significant sum at a time when many household budgets are stretched. Many families would rather not bear that burden, which is unnecessary in many cases. I hope to show how packaging can help reduce that cost, but to do so, we must change perceptions.

The Fresher for Longer campaign found that 61% of consumers believe that keeping fruit and vegetables in their original packaging makes them sweat and go off more quickly, when actually the opposite is true. In a 2011 article published in Food Science and Technology, Dr Paul Butler points out that only about 19% of food waste is unavoidable, consisting of things such as meat and fish bones, peelings, eggshells and banana skins, meaning that 81% of food waste is avoidable. Why is that proportion so high? Dr Butler concludes in his article that

“the core problem is that consumers have largely lost touch with food; what it is, where it comes from and how it is produced. They perceive that food is cheap and plentiful and can be wasted without any thought as to the consequences”.

There is concern that the average shopper does not know how to treat different foods. Should bananas be put in the fridge? The answer, of course, is no. Should cucumbers be taken out of polythene wrap? No. What should people do with cheese once they have opened it? They should put it back into a resealable pack. The lack of such knowledge is damaging the environment and, crucially, people’s pockets. The quantity thrown away amounts to 7.2 million tonnes of food and drink every year, which the campaign says is enough to fill Wembley stadium nine times over. Of that amount, 4.4 million tonnes would have been safe to eat. In addition, the food wasted produces 17 million tonnes of CO2, the amount produced by one fifth of all cars in the UK. It is a pretty substantial problem.

One of the most worrying statistics is that many people believe that the disposal of packaging is a problem bigger than or equal to food waste. A quick look at some statistics shows just how wrong that presumption is. The CO2 emissions from food thrown away are 166 million tonnes, while the CO2 emissions from the packaging amount to just 10.8 million tonnes. That is one fifteenth of the amount, a massive difference. The consequences of using packaging are not nearly as dangerous to the environment as those of food waste.

In 2008, the Advisory Committee on Packaging found that, of the total energy used in the food chain, approximately 50% is used in food production, 10% in transport to the shops and retailing, 30% is used by shoppers driving to the shops and storing and cooking food, and just 10% in making the packaging. The case gets stronger. The Love Food Hate Waste campaign points out that the impact on the environment of throwing away an apple is six times greater than that of the pack it comes in; for tomatoes, it is 30 times greater; for lettuce, it is 100 times greater.

As well as making delivery of products effective, packaging can help prolong the life of our foods. Increasingly, food is produced at some distance from where it is consumed, so packaging is critical to ensuring that it survives the journey from production to consumption. Without packaging, fruit and vegetables would not be available out of season, and consumers would have to grow their own food or shop for it daily.

The Advisory Committee on Packaging draws attention to the fact that selling grapes in trays or bags has reduced in-store waste of grapes by 20%. In-store wastage of new potatoes decreased from 3% when sold loose to less than 1% after specially designed bags were introduced. An unwrapped cucumber loses moisture and becomes dull and unsaleable within three days. Just 1.5 grams of wrapping will keep it fresh for 14 days, which shows how much difference the smallest amount of packaging can make.

The Co-operative Group provides retail experience of the benefits of packaging cucumbers. It switched from wrapped to naked—their word, not mine—cucumbers in 2007, but says that

“we have now reintroduced plastic wrapping to cut food waste and ensure cucumbers look fresh. We expect that the move will save 56 tonnes of food waste a year”.

As the hon. Gentleman said, I introduced a Food Waste Bill a year ago, but he is discussing a new dimension of the issue. It is interesting to listen to him. He might be aware that phase 2 of the Courtauld commitment, which set targets for reducing food and packaging waste, is coming to an end. The target has been exceeded, although it was low in the first place. It seems to me from what he is saying that there is an argument for separating the targets for food waste and for packaging waste, and that it would be wrong to try to bundle up the two in one target. Does he agree?

That is a very sensible comment. I will argue later that packaging waste can be treated as a valuable resource. I have great sympathy with the hon. Lady’s remarks.

The environment and the consumer can benefit from packaging; extending the shelf life of our food is a significant way in which to reduce food waste. Using appropriate packaging can help in three ways: first, as I have already mentioned, through the protection of food in transit. The average household in the UK buys more than 4,000 items of food and other products every year; in the country as a whole, 25 million households buy more than 100 billion items, and more than 75% of those purchases are grocery products, mainly food and drink but also household detergents, paper products, cosmetics, etc. To meet that demand, a typical supermarket today carries considerably more than 50,000 product lines, compared with only 2,000 in the 1960s, so a much broader range of products needs to be distributed, often from much further afield. Those products have to survive the journey from farm or factory to the consumer in an undamaged and unspoilt condition; if food arrives damaged, that only serves to increase the amount of food wasted. Primary packaging protects products, while secondary packaging is the cardboard boxes and trays that are used to group the products together during distribution.

A second role of packaging is to prolong life, and the third is to inform consumers about the contents of the pack, which is fundamental to the Love Food Hate Waste campaign. The campaign website has hints and tips about how consumers can store products effectively. It even includes a section offering poems and rhymes as a different technique to remind consumers how to store food; I shall quote one about bread:

“Don’t get in a spin

it really is no teaser

clip half your bag in a bread bin

and the other half in the freezer.”

That is a good way to get a message across: bread can be preserved by putting half the loaf in the freezer, so that it can be used later.

In response to such ideas and demands, the packaging industry has produced a number of new types of pack. One way in which it has dealt with bread is through smaller packs; fridge packs allow baked beans to last longer once they are opened; and a great deal of packaging is now subdivided, sometimes almost into individual portions, so that the consumer can use some now and some later, which is common for salads and sliced meats. The packaging industry has made significant strides in reducing food waste. It has further innovated by introducing items such as zip locks on cheese packs or breathable fruit and vegetable bags.

The Fresher for Longer campaign, on its website, points out eight ways in which packaging can assist in reducing the amount of food that is thrown away. Some simple ones include: carrots, peppers and apples being best kept in the bag in which they were originally supplied, because such packaging is specifically designed to keep the product fresher for longer; resealable packs for cheese to prevent it drying out; and, during the production process, the air inside salad containers often being modified to enable the salad to remain fresher for longer in fridges by slowing down decomposition, giving customers a longer time in which to eat it.

Consumers can be informed not only through websites but through the packaging itself, which can play a vital role in advising and informing them how to handle their food. The nature of packaging enables producers to communicate with consumers. Some of the ways in which innovative food producers are taking advantage of that facility of packaging include: removing “display until” dates, so that the “best before” and, most importantly, “use by” dates are easier to see; giving flexibility for some products to be used after the date, for example, hard cheeses having a “best before” date rather than a “use by” date; highlighting on the front of the pack where to store food to keep it at its best, as many are doing, with most food packs having detailed storage advice; and moving away from guidance that tells consumers to “freeze on day of purchase” to “freeze before the use by date”, so that if food is purchased, kept in the fridge and not eaten, it can be frozen before the date in order to be used later. All such initiatives help reduce food waste and show that the food production and packaging industries are being proactive.

The packaging industry has also subscribed to the process of packaging optimisation, to make certain that less material is used in packaging. There have been substantial reductions in the amount of material used, for example in the production of a coke can or cardboard box. Packaging, therefore, has significantly less impact on the environment than many would have us believe. At the end of its life, packaging makes up less than 20% of household waste, amounting to less than 3% of materials going to landfill.

I hope that through today’s debate I have been able to provide an additional perspective to that of the hon. Member for Bristol East on the campaign to reduce food waste. I hope that I have been able to show how packaging is a vital component of, and not a hindrance to, the campaign, and how it provides valuable economic, social and environmental assistance to our society. I look forward to Minister’s response.

I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) on securing it and on his continued work to inform policy makers and the House of important issues to do with food and packaging. He rightly emphasised the importance of the subject, not only from an environmental perspective but in terms of household expenditure. Household bills are squeezed at the moment, and we have the opportunity through a variety of different agencies to inform people better about where their food comes from and how to use it most economically; if we get things right, there could be many wins and virtuous circles. Retailers clearly have a major role to play; they have the relationship with the consumer that is best suited to informing people. Everyone, however, has a role, and I shall come on to talk about the Fresher for Longer campaign and how to continue the work achieved thus far.

The Government identified food waste as a priority stream for action in their waste review. Although UK annual household food waste has decreased since 2006 by 13%, which is more than 1.1 million tonnes, UK households still waste a total of £12 billion in food per year, which is about £50 a month for the average family; £6.7 billion of that total is due to food “not used in time”, which we think of as wasted by not being eaten when it could have been. The rest of that total is food waste that we think of as unavoidable, such as bones, teabags, banana skins and so forth, as described by my hon. Friend; there will always be some of that to be disposed of, and we should not try to escape the fact.

We all know that we ought to be wasting much less food, that food wasted means fewer pounds in our pocket, that the energy and water used to produce the food has been wasted, and that the transportation and packaging costs have been wasted. Not only that, but what happens to wasted food can have significant financial and environmental costs. Most people want to do something on a personal level about the situation and we are taking steps to help them to do so. The Government, by funding WRAP, is working with consumers to help them to save money and to reduce household food waste. Its Love Food Hate Waste campaign, which has been referred to, offers information and ideas on reducing food waste.

Consumers have benefited from innovations that we have encouraged the industry to make, such as resealable salad bags, as described by my hon. Friend, resealable baked bean jars, leftovers recipe ideas or smaller-sized loaves of bread to suit a smaller household. We clarified date labelling guidance in 2011 to make labels clearer so that people are more confident about what they mean and how long food is safe to eat. My hon. Friend made the very good point that we have been needlessly throwing away enormous amounts of food when it is perfectly safe to eat it. Retailers are doing good work with clearer advice about how to store food and consistent labelling. I welcome that and want to see more of it.

We are working with manufacturers and retailers to reduce food and packaging waste through the Courtauld commitment. In response to the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), the second phase of that commitment came to an end in December, as she knows. We are working with WRAP and its signatories to develop a third phase of the agreement which we hope to launch in the near future. WRAP has worked closely with the Courtauld commitment 2, and with the UK and devolved Governments to develop initial targets for the Courtauld commitment 3. The targets are still under consideration and will be announced when the commitment is launched. The grocery sector has made significant progress under the first two stages of Courtauld to reduce food packaging and supply chain waste in the UK. The third-phase targets will build on those achievements.

I thank the Minister for his response to my question. In the second phase the target was 5% and the industry managed to achieve 8.8%, which is better than the target, but is low compared with other countries. Norway has a target of 25% and the Dutch have a target of 20%. I urge him to try to set a more ambitious target in his discussion on the third phase.

The hon. Lady’s comment is justified. It is absolutely right that the House holds the Government and all those involved to account and make the target achievable but ambitious.

As with the Courtauld commitment, we are well on the way to reaching and exceeding targets on household food waste, but we are not leaving it there. I am pleased that the grocery sector has been as keen as we are to keep working in this area, and it makes sense for it to do so. We are working with the other UK Administrations—it is important that we do not operate in a Whitehall bubble—who are key to achieving our UK aims.

Last year, we launched a new voluntary agreement with the hospitality and food service sector to reduce food and packaging waste. That is the first of its kind in that sector. A huge amount of food and packaging is involved in the sector, and we have more than 141 signatories to that agreement, so that sector will be doing its bit.

I turn to the important points raised by my hon. Friend on the Fresher for Longer campaign which Love Food Hate Waste launched early this year. Like him, I applaud Dick Searle, the Kent Waste Partnership, WRAP and many other partners for their work. I am delighted that we trended more than Justin Bieber, but I suspect that that was short-lived and we must make sure we do better in the long run.

The Fresher for Longer campaign was developed by WRAP, as was the Love Food Hate Waste campaign, and funded by the Government in partnership with representatives from the food and packaging industries and local government. Packaging is often seen as the problem, but the campaign shows the important part that packaging can play in helping to reduce food waste and save consumers money. Throwing away food that is not used in time is costing the average household £50 a month. Only 13% of consumers realise that packaging can play an important role in protecting food in our homes. That is the reverse of the statistic that my hon. Friend rightly raised. We must do an enormous amount to ensure that we are improving on that.

As consumers, we can all pay attention to the storage information on food packaging, which will help us to store food at home so that it keeps fresher for longer. Keeping most fruit in the fridge in its packaging can keep it fresher for a week or more, but around 60% of us take fruit out of the packaging, and more than 70% of us do not store it in the fridge. Reclosing packs of cheese and sliced meats helps to stop them drying out in the fridge, but 13% of us apparently store such food unwrapped in the fridge, and there may be some changes in the Benyon household. If bread is stored in a fridge, it will go stale six times quicker than if it is properly stored elsewhere. As my hon. Friend rightly said, 81% of food waste is avoidable.

Retailers and food manufacturers can continue to improve their packaging and do more to tell consumers about the innovations they are already making on food labelling and packaging. That will raise awareness of the benefits and encourage consumers to make use of them. I will give an example. Marks & Spencer has reduced packaging by 25% over the last five years, but we must be mindful of continuing to protect the product to avoid it being unnecessarily wasted. I have an image of naked cucumbers in my head, and my hon. Friend made a good point about them. Marks & Spencer has introduced individually packaged meat and fish fillets within a larger bag to enable customers to use only the portions they need and to freeze the rest without exposing it to the atmosphere.

The Fresher for Longer campaign’s materials can be used by all retailers, brands and councils. That should stimulate further reductions in food waste and help consumers to make the most of the food they buy. The aim with packaging should always be to use the minimum level to protect the product from damage and to ensure that it maintains its quality during its shelf life. If a product is wasted due to not enough packaging, its disposal often has a greater environmental impact than the packaging itself, as my hon. Friend said.

Some great examples of innovative food packaging have led to a reduction in packaging material and its environmental impact, and increased the product’s shelf-life. I have given the example from Marks & Spencer, and other examples include vacuum-packed fresh meat and fish from Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and the Co-op where packaging has been reduced by up to 75% but produces an extra five days of life. It is also important to continue efforts to reduce the environmental impact of any new packaging by, for example, making it easier to recycle it and increasing recycling rates.

The message is that we need the right sort of packaging. The public perception, often among people who could most benefit, is sometimes that we need smarter packaging and easier-to-understand labelling but, as my hon. Friend said, it is most important that people understand where food comes from and how to use it most effectively. That will not only benefit the environment, but reduce household expenditure.

I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to work closely with informed people such as him, the packaging industries, retailers and others to ensure that across the whole spectrum of food production, processing and retailing we get the problems as right as we can. It is not a job for Government alone, and cannot be driven from a Minister’s desk in Whitehall. There must be solid partnership working throughout the United Kingdom, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss it today, but it is very much work in progress.

Sitting suspended.