Own-label products go to large charities with contracts but smaller charities miss out while the food ends up as animal feed
As supermarkets restrict who their suppliers can give the food to, food distribution charities say that hundreds of thousands of tonnes of surplus food that could be going to hungry families is going to the trash.
Today, several independent charities, which are grouped under the Xcess network, insist that they struggle to source unwanted edible food from manufacturers and processors because of supermarkets’ rules about the handling of their own-label products.
According to research by the sustainability group Anthesis, owing to difficulties of getting it to the right place, at least two hundred thousand tonnes of own-label food fit for human consumption ends up being used to generate energy or as animal feed.
Mark Game is the chief executive of the charity The Bread and Butter Thing, a food club that offers heavily discounted food parcels to 25,000 registered members. He said:
“Retailers hold the cards – unless they say yes to manufacturers, they just can’t give [the food] out. Demand constantly outstrips supply and we are having to let people down, and if we had this food we could do more.”
Without permission from the retailers, David France, the manager of the Lancaster-based community food club Eggcup, said it was impossible to get hold of the food. He added:
“As a fairly new organization with a tremendous level of growth, we have not been able to establish relationships with larger organizations. It is ridiculous how much food is being thrown away because retailers have contracts with larger [charities], which aren’t always able to use that surplus.”
According to the Anthesis research, nearly half of the food we buy annually flows from supermarkets’ own brands, and as per evaluations, they make up at least 72% of edible surplus food in supermarkets’ supply chains.
But it is not clear who has ownership of the waste, with suppliers often packing own-label products for multiple retailers. Furthermore, it is difficult to get permission from each supermarket involved to hand over unwanted items.
Highlighting the issue last summer and issuing new guidance, Wrap, the government-backed recycling body, called on retailers to rethink rules that largely limit the redistribution of their unwanted own-label foods to two large charities, FareShare and Company Shop.
For their suppliers to be automatically mandated to directly hand surplus food to a list of smaller charities, retailers have been called upon by Wrap to share the necessary information. Among the smaller charities that would like to get some of these food donations to include The Bread and Butter Thing.
This charity has already met established standards on food safety and redistribution indicated by passing tests.
Ever since, only Sainsbury’s setup has changed to enable all its own-label suppliers to pass on goods directly without signing numerous local agreements. Suppliers are only allowed by Tesco and Asda to hand out surplus own-label food to small charities via FareShare and Company Shop or if audited by FareShare.
Although Morrisons allows its suppliers to give direct handouts to a wider number of named groups, charities and suppliers say they have to cut individual deals rather than gain easy access via a national mandate.
Game said that although many suppliers would not separate waste food by the supermarket it was packed or processed for, as this added costs and time for hard-pressed businesses, the change from Sainsbury’s was welcome.
Until all the major grocers changed their approach, a step-change in the handling of food waste would not be possible, according to Morrisons.
Andy Mitchell at Worldwide Fruit said:
“We supply FareShare but they can only take a certain amount of volume.”
Worldwide Fruit supplies a wide range of products including pears, nectarines, and apples to big supermarkets. He said that the company has managed to increase the amount of edible surplus food it redistributed by a third by working directly with The Bread and Butter Thing.
When dealing with more difficult-to-process waste, such as end-of-season fruit that was not usually economic to produce or pick and was packed in a way that did not suit FareShare’s systems, it had managed to smoothly work with the charity.
“Having more than one charity in the mix makes a significant difference in the flexibility to take product.”
A spokesperson for Asda said that the firm was in the process of changing its systems to meet Wrap guidelines, adding:
“We are already adopting the broader elements of the Wrap guidelines and onboarding charities such as The Bread and Butter Thing and City Harvest and others so they can receive food directly from our suppliers as well as from our stores, depots, and FareShare as they do already.”
A Tesco spokesperson commented:
“We are fully compliant with Wrap’s food donation guidelines and are part of their working group which helps to create the guidance.”
“Our food donation program is the largest of its kind in the UK and to date we have provided more than 135m meals to FareShare, supporting thousands of independent charities and food banks in communities across the UK.”
A spokesperson for Morrisons concluded:
“We work with hundreds of small independent food distribution groups up and down the country, together with the larger groups such as The Bread and Butter Thing on a national and regional level. Both of these initiatives allow for surplus own-label food to be redistributed in a thoughtful and impactful way.”