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Food and Drink: Waste Prevention

Volume 803: debated on Wednesday 17 June 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with publicans about the steps they are taking (1) to prevent the waste of, and (2) to find alternative uses for, any food and drink due to expire while the restrictions to address the Covid-19 pandemic are in place.

My Lords, we are working with WRAP and across the supply chain to help get surplus food to those who have a need. Defra has made £5 million available for the Covid-19 emergency surplus food grant fund to help redistribution organisations obtain, store and transport food from the hospitality sector safely and to ensure that valuable food supplies do not go to waste. The Government are in discussions with industry to explore the alternative options for the repurposing of spoiled beer.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply, but is he concerned that millions of litres of beer had to be poured down the drain when the lockdown was first announced and many pubs continue to seek the approval of water companies to pour beer away when it could be used for other purposes? Further, is he concerned that when pubs eventually reopen, it will be local craft breweries that will have been the hardest hit by the lockdown, putting them at a huge disadvantage to the global brewing companies and affecting our local and national pub culture for many years to come?

I too am very concerned. There are 47,000 pubs across the UK and between them they have around 140 million litres of spoiled beer that needs to be cleared from pub cellars to make way for fresh stock. That is the equivalent of around 56 Olympic swimming pools. However, there are enormous difficulties in disposing of spoiled beer. The main obstacle is that beer containers must be removed from pub cellars, around three-quarters of which are subterranean. Most are designed to allow full containers of beer to roll into the cellar using gravity, and given that each one weighs around 70 kilograms, taking them back out is at least a two-person job. In the current conditions, that obviously presents logistical and health and safety challenges. It may be easier for pubs with street-level cellars to send full containers of beer for repurposing elsewhere. Defra and BEIS are engaging with the BBPA to ensure that pubs are being encouraged to do so. We are actively working on finding alternatives to simply disposing of beer down waste systems.

Since the pandemic began, single-use has increased, with all pubs, restaurants and cafes restricted to takeaway-only. This is being exploited by some companies, which claim that single-use—often single-use plastic—is the safest option. The science does not back that up because the virus can live on single-use surfaces as well as on reusable ones. What is being done to ensure that systems are in place to allow for reuse, recycling or composting and limiting the use of single-use plastic, especially in the light of the pandemic?

This is very much a concern for Defra and it is a priority area. As noble Lords will know, since the 5p charge was introduced, we have reduced the annual use of single-use plastic carrier bags by over 7 billion. We have launched the groundbreaking Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance. From October, there will be a ban on the sale of plastic straws, cotton buds, stirrers and so on. Further, our landmark Environment Bill is designed to shift the emphasis towards producer responsibility. It includes powers to charge for single-use plastic items, introduce deposit return schemes and manage the export of plastic waste.

My Lords, many publicans shut up shop once the restrictions were announced and are fearful that their businesses will not survive. Others began popular takeaway services and are buying only in limited supplies, including real ale, to meet the weekend demand. Some have taken the opportunity to redecorate their premises—something unthinkable during normal trading. Some wholesalers are offering a scheme whereby they collect out-of-date barrels and offer a replacement once pubs have reopened. Does the Minister agree that allowing pubs with gardens to reopen in July, ready for the summer trade, is vital not only for their well-being but for the mental well-being of the general public, who desperately need to socialise?

The Government absolutely share the concerns raised by the noble Baroness in relation not just to the pub sector but to almost all sectors of our economy. Clearly, we would like to return to vaguely normal conditions as soon as we safely and possibly can. The difficulty with assessing each and every premises on its own merits is that that prevents us looking at the cumulative effect of opening up seemingly safe premises across the board. The Government as a whole must add the cumulative effect of doing so and determine whether that takes us beyond acceptable safe limits. It is our hope that we will be able to return to normal as soon as possible, but we have to do so in a way that minimises the likelihood of a return to the heights of coronavirus.

My Lords, I first declare that I was formerly the head of the British Beer & Pub Association, to which my noble friend has already referred. I ask him to add pressure to those voices we have already heard on the need to reopen pubs as a key element of providing community support within society. I remind my noble friend that it takes time to brew real ale, so we need not only urgent consideration of the decision to reopen pubs and restaurants but notice, so that those venues can be well prepared.

I very much note my noble friend’s comments and share his hope that we will be able to return to normal as soon as possible. Neither I nor the Government underestimate the value of the pub sector, not only to our economy but to our communities, for all the reasons the noble Lord has described. When we are likely to relax the lockdown restrictions in all such sectors is under permanent review.

My Lords, the whole food industry has obviously been disrupted by the coronavirus—we have seen millions of gallons of milk thrown away, as well as beer—so we have food shortages to look forward to. I note that the Minister said that he is working with WRAP, but how can we reduce food waste? That will be crucial.

The noble Baroness raises a hugely important point. In relation to pubs, the focus of this exchange, we in government are trying hard to encourage the repurposing of spoiled beer. There are vast amounts of it, as I have described. Two obvious alternative options for the use of spoiled beer are animal feed—the Food Standards Agency has confirmed that it is safe and can be handled appropriately—and redirecting it to anaerobic digestion plants. Not all the plants are designed to accommodate spoiled beer, but many can. We are working closely with the UK Former Foodstuffs Processors Association, the Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association and other government departments to ensure that this happens. Of course, the same principle applies to food across the board.

My Lords, will my noble friend congratulate the water companies on working so closely with the British Beer & Pub Association? They have waived their fees and agreed to collective applications, which is very welcome. Surely to goodness a hoist could be in place, particularly for the smaller brewers, to enable the barrels to be removed. As my noble friend so rightly says, there is a willing market for them in anaerobic digestion.

I am happy to echo my noble friend’s thanks and congratulations to the water sector. Defra was pleased to confirm that it will waive the usual charge to publicans—around £1,000 to £1,500—for disposing of spoiled beer. It is also taking steps to streamline the beer disposal application process and minimise the administrative burden on publicans. Those steps include allowing bulk applications from pubs and redeploying teams from elsewhere in water companies to focus solely on processing applications from pubs. She is right to identify a possible solution to the problem of the weight of these barrels, which are hard to remove by hand, but other options are being explored as well.

My Lords, nearly £1 a litre of duty is being lost through ullage of beer and the problem of recycling is getting up to an industrial scale, so will the Minister use the duty on beer to look at the potential for industrial-scale recycling, particularly for the land-based and energy uses such as microbial fuel or biogas?

The noble Lord is absolutely right to identify those as useful alternatives. There are big markets for anaerobic digestion and animal feed, so there is no reason why the repurposing of spoiled beer cannot be managed on an industrial scale. Clearly, this took us by storm almost overnight and is a problem we have not had to deal with in the past. I will absolutely take his suggestion back to my department and the Treasury, which ultimately makes these decisions, and ensure that it is properly looked at.

My Lords, we got through only six supplementary questions on that Question, so I ask all noble Lords and Ministers to be as brief as possible. They can still be relevant and cogent.