09/01/2012 January 2012 – Avoiding food waste
The European Parliament is back in action after the holidays! The next plenary session will take place from the 16th to the 19th of January. Besides the election of a president and vice-presidents for the Parliament, one of the main subjects being debated during this session will be the food chain – imbalances in the food supply chain, the distribution chain for agricultural raw material and also food waste. Italian MEP, Salvatore Caronna (S&D) wrote a report on the latter which focused on how to avoid food waste.
According to a European Commission study, food waste in the 27 Member States of the EU has risen to 89 million tonnes (i.e. 179kg per person). By 2020, this figure is expected to have risen by a further 40% reaching 140 million tonnes. This waste includes an ever-increasing amount of foodstuffs that are still edible. However, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, by reducing post-harvest crop losses (about 14%) along with losses at distribution and consumption level, it would be possible to fulfil 3/5s of the requirements for increased cereal production needed globally by 2050.
In order to raise awareness among citizens and national governments, the Council and the European Commission have decided to act. This report recommends making the subject of food waste one of the priorities on the European policy agenda. It also suggests declaring 2013 “European Year against food waste”.
With the aim of halving food waste by 2025, this report highlights the steps to be taken to reduce it across all stages in the food chain, while keeping a close eye on the areas that will be affected – the climate and the economy to name but two.
From the outset, MEPs have pointed out that the term ‘food waste’ is very loosely defined and also there is an important distinction between ‘food waste’ and ‘food refuse’. Food waste refers to all food products removed at any point in the food chain for economic or aesthetic reasons or because the best before date is closing in. These foods are still totally edible. Non-use of these products means they are treated as refuse. Removing them from the food chain leads to a number of negative economic and environmental consequences.
An important environmental factor to be considered
The environmental element of food waste is significant. In fact, as several MEPs have pointed out, the “unconsumed food mountains” lead to a high level of methane – a greenhouse gas 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. These emissions are a result of the emissions from the food stuffs as well as their packaging and transport.
Did you know…?
In Europe, the almost 89 million tonnes of wasted food produces 170 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent.
MEPs are therefore encouraging member States to promote sustainable production on a small and medium scale that is linked to consumption and to local and regional markets. To do this, they are also calling on the European Commission, within the framework of the future Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), to guarantee adequate financing to encourage the primary sector, as well as to incentivise short supply chains.
MEPs also want the European Commission to look into the impact a compulsory refuse policy would have on food waste. Positioning themselves for implementation of such a policy, MEPs are calling for the ‘polluter pays’ principle to be integrated.
All stakeholders in the food chain must get involved
Prior to setting out its proposals, the report highlights the different causes of food waste. These show that the problem actually affects all levels of the food production chain through overproduction, product deterioration, market standards, bad management of stocks and even marketing strategies. The report advocates sustainable efforts being made to improve processing, packaging and transport of products whether by processors, retailers or even the Member States themselves.
The first step in the food chain is, of course, production. The report states that the agriculture sector is efficiently using the resources available. It stresses that this sector plays an important role in the fight against waste and calls on the European Commission to take this into consideration in its legislative proposals. What’s more, MEPs also want a joint action to be put in place for investment in the areas of research, science, technology, education, consultancy as well as innovation in agriculture with the aim of reducing food waste.
Fighting food waste in developing countries
Food independence in developing countries could be dramatically improved if agricultural infrastructure and production techniques were improved. MEPs are asking the European Commission to support actions that focus on these issues.
The report also mentions the need for recommendations from the European Commission and Member States on the cold chain. The problem here is that if the temperature is not optimal or appropriate, refrigerated food is at risk of spoiling.
Noted in the report is the fact that the definitions for grading and the acceptable shapes of fresh fruit and vegetables are a source of waste. While this may seem logical, MEPs are calling on those involved in sorting the products to be aware of the nutritional value of products that may be imperfectly shaped or have a lower grade.
Furthermore, MEPs looked into the link between food waste, packaging and food labelling. They pointed to a European Commission study which reveals that 18% of European citizens do not understand the term ‘best before’. Companies are thus being asked henceforth to explain the dates mentioned on the label so that consumers can make a clear choice between:
- ‘best before’ which relates to the quality of the product;
- And ‘use by’ which relates to the safety of the product.
MEPs would like to develop investment in methods that aim to reduce food waste within the food industry. Reducing the loss of foodstuffs would lead to a reduction in their retail price. To this end, the Commission is being asked to:
- Set out instruments and actions aiming to increase participation among food industry stakeholders in the fight against food waste (food production companies, wholesalers, distribution chains etc.);
- Make the food industry take responsibility particularly by encouraging them to review how food is packaged so that it is better adapted to the diversity of household sizes.
Lastly, provisions that relate to consumer behaviour – as consumers are the final actors in the chain – are also covered in the report. This is mainly a question of educating consumers about food conservation. MEPs are thus calling on the European Commission to create an explanatory guide on the conservation of foodstuffs and use of these products as they near their best before date. The report also stresses the preventative element in the fight against food waste among consumers. The European Commission is being asked to set specific objectives in this area for Member States to reach by 2014.
However, any decrease in food waste at these levels also depends on greater cooperation between all stakeholders in the food chain.
Cooperation at all levels and among all stakeholders along the food chain
The report points out that several discussion platforms already exist which carry out important work in the fight against food waste – the FAO of course, but also the EU Retail Forum for Sustainability, the High Level Forum for a Better Functioning of the Food Supply Chain as well as the informal Member State network known as Friends of Sustainable Food.
MEPs are also calling for action from European Institutions.
There are a large number of European civil servants and this requires a lot of restaurants. MEPs want urgent measures to be taken to reduce the significant level of food waste that occurs in the canteens of the various European Institutions.
Stakeholders are being encouraged to exchange best practice both at European and national level whether they are professionals, researchers, local or regional administrations, or associations. Better coordination is also recommended among Member States, and on a smaller scale, between producers and consumers. This cooperation will bring greater awareness among the public of the value of foodstuffs and agricultural products as well as of the causes of waste. The report goes so far as to advocate setting up food education classes (how to store, cook and throw out food) at all levels of education but particularly in higher education.
One of the proposals mentioned several times in the report for fighting food waste is redistributing foodstuffs – for free or at a reduced price – that are not compliant in terms of grading or shape as well as those close to their best before date. This redistribution would, for retailers, significantly reduce the price of fresh produce when it is approaching its sell by date. In addition, this method is of clear benefit to consumers, particularly those on lower incomes, as it enables them to buy food at a reduced price. There is an obstacle to implementing this however as some Member States have banned below-cost selling of food. MEPs have criticized this situation and are calling on States to change their legislation in this respect.
Another solution proposed is in the area of public procurement. MEPs are thus calling on the Commission to implement rules in this area in order to prioritise companies that guarantee free redistribution of unsold produce and undertake concrete actions aimed at reducing food waste. With regard to public procurement, MEPs want Member States to ensure that small local producers have access to public contracts particularly contracts related to promoting and providing fruit and dairy products in schools.
Find out more