UK supermarkets lack transparency and consistency over food waste

The UK’s National Federation of Women’s Institutes – affectionately known as the WI – has launched a Supermarket Food Waste Manifesto to address the mismatch between what they see as retailers’ rhetoric and what is in fact happening on the shelves.

The Manifesto is based on research the WI undertook into food waste among 5000 of its members which found many of these savvy shoppers are left confused or unhappy by supermarket practices that led them to waste food.

The WI research, published in April, shows many of its members find that pre-packaged products led them to overbuy and they also didn’t like multi-buys. They would like to see more opportunity to allow consumers to buy products in smaller or individual quantities at the same price or to buy produce loose.

Significant numbers of survey respondents found ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ date labels confusing to use and the WI would like to see a pilot study that removed ‘best before’ labels on packaged fruit and vegetables and instead an emphasis placed on the correct storage method for the product.

An often neglected area that also received the WI ire was the ‘once opened’ consumption instructions on foodstuffs. They carried out an analysis of around 1000 products comparing own-label brands and branded equivalents. In many cases there were big differences between the ‘once opened’ instructions when the own-brand and branded products were compared – 35% of all products examined had discrepancies. The WI survey also found members were unclear whether ‘once opened’ instructions are an indication of food safety or food quality.

But one of the biggest criticisms of supermarkets was the retailers own lack of transparency on food waste. The WI note that the majority of supermarkets have not made their food waste data public. Although the WI did single out the progress made by Tesco and Sainsbury’s in some areas of food waste.

Moving down the supply chain, the WI say there is even less understanding as to the amount of food wasted especially at the farm gate and the impact supermarket grading practices may have contributed to waste here.

The WI survey found that many members would be perfectly okay buying ‘wonky’ fruit and veg. As the report states: “At present much of the blame for food waste is laid at the door of householders, but there is little understanding as to the amount of food wasted by each retailer. There is even less understanding about the amount wasted at production level.”

The Manifesto – sent out to individual WI branches – calls on supermarkets to make four commitments: 1. An end to overbuying; 2. Extending the product life of foods in the home; 3. Fully utilising the farm crop; and 4. Supermarket transparency on food waste.

The National Federation of Women’s Institutes is the largest voluntary women’s membership organisation in the UK with some 220,000 members in 6,300 Institutes in England and Wales. At their annual meeting in 2016 members passed a resolution calling on supermarkets to do more to tackle food waste. Following this the WI launched the WI Food Matters campaign and this research report and the Supermarket Food Waste Manifesto are the first actions from the campaign.