If global food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the US and China.
According to WRAP, annual household food waste totalled 7.1m tonnes in 2015 – worth an estimated £1bn. And the sad truth is that, regardless of consumers’ efforts, the UK is unlikely to make significant headway in this space without a considerable shake-up in the supply chain.
Approved Food is one company hoping to turn this ever-approaching tide. Founded in 2009, the discount online food retailer is encouraging supermarkets, suppliers and manufacturers to reform their business models to tackle waste before the challenge becomes insurmountable.
Last year, the company sold over 5m items with a revenue of £4m on goods worth £9.8m.
“There’s no denying we’re destroying the planet, and people are starting to realise the reality of it,” Andy Needam, Approved Food managing director tells Food Spark.
“But what people may not realise is that a lot of the issues come from further up the supply chain. Any product made for a specific supermarket – any home-brand product – is a major problem.
“If the supermarket wants to change the price on the packaging, or delist the product, then that product is immediately unsellable. It doesn’t just get shifted to another supermarket. There’s a huge amount of waste in that area.”
Approved Food does its best to divert those products away from landfill, acting as the last line of defense for short-dated and expired products.
“As supermarket products get closer to best-before, they fall into the secondary markets, such as Home Bargains, TJ Morris and Poundland,” explains Needam.
“But even they turn their noses up after a certain time, and that’s where Approved Food comes in. We’ll take products that are extremely close to their best before date, and even beyond it.”
The online retailer primarily deals in ambient products, but it’s not as simple as unsold items from the shelves; it also takes on commodities from cancelled orders, expired competitions and delisted lines. But, as things stand, excessive red tape restricts Approved Food’s promise.
“Anything that’s being produced to eat should be eaten, not destroyed or buried,” says Needam. “So we’ll do pretty much anything to save a product. We’ll strip the packaging, relabel it, black-mark logos out if we need to. Unfortunately, supplier contracts with supermarkets are often 80 plus pages long, and the legal complications make it very difficult to save as much as we’d like.”
Cakes, crisps and locusts
Needam believes it is vital that consumers are not discouraged and continue to do their bit for the environment.
“We’re trying to re-educate people a little with regards to the various dates displayed on products,” he says. “As simple as it sounds, many consumers don’t appreciate the difference between best-before and use-by. Throw in display until, sell-by and expires and it can get a little confusing.”
In most cases, best-before is an arbitrary date. The packaging on a tin of soup, for example, may pass this date after three years, but will last decades when stored in a suitable environment.
“Bottled water is a really silly one,” Needam smiles. “It’s been going through the ground for thousands of years, but it’s out of date next Tuesday!”
Approved Food’s most common sales include soft drinks – which possess especially short dates – along with crisps, biscuits and cakes. Ambient groceries such as pasta, rice, soup and tinned fruit are further customer favourites, but the online retailer isn’t afraid to throw its audience the occasional curveball.
“We’ve sold packets of dried locusts in the past,” Needam reveals. “They actually came in quite useful – people get curious around the time of I’m a Celebrity!”
Needam is hopeful that the ever-increasing awareness around food waste will spark a revolution sooner rather than later, but warns that evolving foods trends – even those with economical intentions – are often doing more harm than good.
“The awareness nowadays is great,” he says. “It’s not just the awareness around food waste, it’s the resources, too – the energy and fuel being used to produce the food in the first place, and the diesel and petrol used to transport it. Trends are difficult as they come and go so much. Protein is up and down all the time – it was particularly big last year.”
The problem, according to Needam, is that many brands enter these markets with only slightly different products from their rivals, and there is only so much shelf space available.
“Gin is another one. A year or two ago, it was prosecco. Every brand has several types of gin, and a supermarket will then stock several types from various brands. From a waste perspective, it doesn’t help, because as the trend slows, shops will say, ‘Hang on, do we need 85 different flavours of gin?’ They’ll cancel many of them and then all of those go to waste.
“Temporary special editions are another one. A brand will decide to trial hedgehog flavoured crisps,” he jokes, “and I think you can guess how much of those end up unsold!”