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Cost of Living: Food Waste

Volume 832: debated on Thursday 21 September 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the abandonment of mandatory food waste reporting on the cost of living.

My Lords, I declare my farming and land management interests, as set out in the register. This Government are committed to reducing the amount of food we waste. Measuring food waste can lead to action to reduce it, and result in cost savings. However, whether such efficiencies would be passed to consumers is unclear, and within the purview of businesses themselves. It would cost an estimated £26,000 on average for a large company to start measuring food waste. These costs could be passed on to customers.

My Lords, food is wasted and yet people go hungry. The Government’s target to reduce food waste by 50% by 2030 cannot be achieved without data. Despite 80% of respondents to the consultation being in favour of mandatory reporting, the Government have decided to scrap it, saying it would add cost, as the Minister has just said. But 99% of companies that invest in reducing food waste actually benefit economically. Will the Government therefore give themselves the best chance of achieving their own target, and increase redistribution of surplus food to people who need it, by implementing mandatory reporting of food waste, to include the whole supply chain and medium-sized companies, not just a few big ones?

My Lords, nobody wants to see good food go to waste. It harms our environment and is bad for business. The UK is an international leader on tackling food waste; we are committed to meeting the target in UN sustainable development goal 12.3, which seeks to halve global food waste at consumer and retail levels by 2030. For unavoidable food waste, the Government’s Environment Act will introduce a requirement for all local authorities and businesses in England to arrange for the collection of food waste for recycling. This will ensure that food waste can be treated through aerobic digestion or composting, delivering significant carbon savings over sending food waste to landfill.

Food waste is a big contribution to climate change. If you do not measure things, you do not do anything about it. A company that measures its food waste is much more likely to reduce it waste. Its cost of measuring will come out of its savings in food waste measurement. At the moment, the only companies that measure are those that are doing something about it. By excluding other companies and getting rid of the mandatory arrangements, the Government have made sure that companies that are not doing anything about it do not measure it and therefore do not know and will not do anything about it.

My Lords, I have to disagree with my noble friend and the leading question posed by the noble Baroness earlier. We believe that the best way for companies to reduce food waste is the voluntary method we have set out in the road map. The surplus food and drink waste hierarchy is a priority scale for the use, recovery and disposal of surplus food and drink waste. At the top of the hierarchy is prevention, followed by redistribution to people in need, then animal feed, recycling in aerobic digestion plant and composting, followed by recovery of energy from waste plants. The least preferred options are disposal—for example, incineration—without energy recovery, and landfill.

My Lords, the Minister says that the Government decided not to ask for that data because of the cost. Can he tell the House what the cost would have been?

My Lords, I think I said in my opening Answer that it would cost an estimated £26,000 on average for a large company to start measuring food waste.

My Lords, is it not welcome that so many companies are ending putting the sell-by date on food, which became a kind of tyranny for consumers who felt they had to throw away food when they thought it was past its sell-by date, when in fact it was completely fresh? Is this not a forward and positive step?

My Lords, I quite agree with my noble friend. This is all part of rethinking how we buy and use food. It is incumbent on all of us to buy what we need and use what we buy. This will help us drive down food waste and reduce cost for businesses and individual households.

My Lords, I wonder whether the House will permit me to bring up an ancient gripe to do with the redistribution of surplus food from Parliament itself. I have been going at this for many years, talking to the catering department. There have been many objections, one of which is whether it would have to bear legal responsibility should some of the food be in any way imperfect. I found a wonderful organisation, whose name temporarily escapes me but begins with F, which is prepared to collect food at a convenient point, take legal responsibility and redistribute it, but I have had nothing back from the catering department. I wonder whether the Minister would be kind enough to take this back to the department and get back to me on why it is not possible to redistribute perfectly good food from this House and the other Chamber?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right, in that redistribution is a vital part of reducing food waste. Since 2015, overall levels of redistribution have increased threefold—worth in excess of £1.3 billion and more than 1 billion meals. I will take this back to the department to discuss what we can do with the catering service.

My Lords, the Minister talked about the cost to business, but the Government’s impact assessment found that a very small reduction in food waste—just 0.25%—is enough to balance the cost of the mandatory reporting scheme and that a 1% reduction would save food businesses at least £24 million every year: significant cost savings that could help offset the substantial prices that consumers have faced over the past year and a half. Why do the Government continue to insist that this scheme, which is almost universally wanted, would introduce extra costs when those who would be subject to it say it would be good for business?

My Lords, I think the noble Baroness stated the answer in her question. It makes good business sense for businesses to reduce their food waste and their costs, as that it is better for their bottom line, but we are not going to do something at the time of a cost of living crisis which could incur additional cost for consumers.

My Lords, food is a necessity of life, not a luxury. For those struggling to feed their families, food waste, whether at the farm gate or on the supermarket shelf, is unacceptable. If the Government do not know the level of food waste, how will they ensure that food poverty is not increasing and that edible food is not going to landfill?

My Lords, I sense we are going over the same ground a bit here, and I can only reiterate what I have said already. It makes good sense for businesses to reduce their food waste. However, the overwhelming amount of food waste in this country, 70%, comes from individual households. Therefore, it is about education and helping individual households and consumers to buy what they need, use what they buy and waste as little as possible.

My Lords, if companies are saying that they believe that monitoring food waste is a good thing and they are making money from reducing food waste, why not just have a levy on companies to pay for that monitoring so we can all be happy?

For the assistance of the House, I believe the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, was probably talking about FairShare. I hope the Minister is aware of the letter sent this week to the CEOs of the six largest supermarkets by #getfairaboutfarming. One of the requests in that letter is relevant to this Question as it asks supermarkets to buy what they have committed to buy. Farmers suffer major economic loss and a huge amount of food is wasted because supermarkets order food and then refuse to take it and put it on the shelves, so it rots in the fields. Are the Government going to force supermarkets to get fairer with farmers and with all the benefits of cutting food waste?

I take the noble Baroness’s point. As I said in my declaration of interests, I come from a farming background, so I think it is essential for farmers, many of whom are, in effect, small producers, to get a fair price for what they produce.

My Lords, when did the Government last advise the population that they should reduce their waste, and which Minister said it?

My Lords, this is an ongoing public information campaign. Advertisements are placed in supermarkets, online and on social media. We are not in the business of mandating or telling people how much or how little to buy. We are in the business of advising people so that they save money and buy what they need for their households.