How supermarkets can prevent food waste at the farm gate

Supermarkets need to give ugly produce more of a chance and change their trading practices to prevent tonnes of food being thrown out, claims a new report.

26 February 2018
farmingfood wastefruitseasonalsupermarketssustainabilityvegetables

Produce is being rejected by supermarkets for not being pretty enough and this is the biggest reason for food waste, a new report has found.

An investigation by food and environment charity Feedback has called on supermarkets to change their business practices to prevent food waste. WRAP’s most recent research estimates that farm-level food waste is 2.5 million tonnes, representing a lost produce value of £0.8 billion.

Supermarkets trading practices, including last-minute changes to forecasts, retrospective amendments to supply agreements and the use of cosmetic specifications to reject produce because it is the wrong shape, size or colour all cause wastage, Feedback's report found.

It also singled out supermarket contract practices as a major cause of refuse, including sudden order cancellations that leave many farmers without compensation and no market to sell their food.

“Due to natural uncontrollable factors like weather and pests, farmers cannot control the final quantities they produce. To avoid risking the loss of contracts, farmers must meet buyers’ orders in full, and to guarantee this they must overproduce. The inflexibility of supermarket contracts has normalised overproduction and the resulting waste,” the report said.

So why is there so much dumping? And what can be done to stop it?

Tonnes of waste

Farmers reported an average of 10 to 16% food wastage on typical years, which is equal to around 22,000 to 37,000 tonnes, Feedback's survey found. That's enough food to provide 150,000 to 250,000 people with five portions of fruit and vegetables a day for a whole year.

In fact, food waste in primary production has been measured by WRAP for two key crops: strawberries and lettuce. It estimated that £30 million worth of strawberries and lettuce ended up as waste in the UK in 2015.

WRAP's results showed that 19% of lettuces were unharvested – representing a loss of 38,000 tonnes, while 9% of strawberry crops are wasted – equivalent to 10,000 tonnes. The main causes of this were a mismatch in supply and demand or cosmetic and quality related.

“By transferring the commercial risk of overproduction onto farmers, and by accepting the very large environmental consequences of a food production model that prioritises consistent, high availability over minimal waste, supermarkets have created a system which is synonymous with waste,” the report claimed.

Am I not pretty enough?

Wonky veg still doesn't have a major foothold in the market, according to the report.

One anonymous farmer who responded to Feedback's survey said that they waste on average 25% of their carrots, mainly at packhouse level. Some carrots are rejected because of rotting or pest damage, but a large amount are simply too small, large or wonky. This amounts to 1,750 tonnes of carrots per year equal to nearly 22 million portions.

“To put that in perspective, that’s more than Asda donated to charity in 2016 (1,100 tonnes) – wasted on one farm in one year. These outgraded carrots are sent back to the farmer from the packhouse,” the report said.

Guy Singh-Watson, owner of Riverford Organic – a company that delivers 47,000 boxes of vegetables to houses around the UK – said when he used to supply the supermarkets, he generally grew about a third more than he thought he would sell.

“Just to make sure that the supermarket buyer didn’t have a tantrum if you ran short, and so routinely you have more than you can sell and so you just mow it off and plough it in – that’s the normal thing to do,” he said.

The Groceries Code Adjudicator, Christine Tacon, also remarked in November 2017 that farmers have reported that they are forced to plough produce back into the ground because of last-minute order cancellations.


What the farmers say

  • 40% of farmers surveyed said retailers use cosmetic standards as an excuse to reject produce when they can get a lower price elsewhere or their demand has fallen.
  • For 60% of farmers, overproducing food is necessary because there is pressure to always meet buyer orders or risk losing contracts.
  • Nine out of 10 farmers have found overproduction leads to greater price volatility.
  • Retailers chop and change what proportion of their stock they buy from different suppliers in search of the cheapest offer, which leads to more unpredictable demand, 80% of farmers declared.
  • Eight out of ten farmers said differences between buyers’ forecasts and confirmed orders, as well as last-minute order cancellations, make it difficult to find alternative buyers for produce before it deteriorates.

Changing with the seasons

Seasonal menus at restaurants have been on trend for a while now, but according to the charity Feedback, supermarkets are failing to market local seasonal produce, particularly when certain weather conditions lead to excessive amounts of food.

A cauliflower glut occurred in the UK in 2017, which resulted in large amounts of cauliflowers going to waste. Kent farmer Geoff Philpott reported 100,000 cauliflowers going to waste after his buyer dramatically reduced their order at the same time as there was a sea of vegetables.

Another farmer, Trevor Bradley, reported wasting 25,000 cauliflowers a week because there was no market for them.

Following a Feedback campaign to bring Philpott's story to public attention, several supermarkets including Tesco and Aldi committed to marketing cauliflowers during the glut, to absorb some of the surplus produce. Tesco sold 220,000 extra cauliflowers at 79p each and Aldi sold 500,000 extra cauliflowers at 29p each – a total of 720,000 cauliflowers saved.

Fighting food waste

So what can be done to save produce?

The charity said supermarkets should experiment with relaxing cosmetic standards in their main ranges, in order to test customer response.

Small tweaks to cosmetic specifications, for example on colour coverage on fruit like apples or pears, may make a big difference in terms of how much of a crop a farmer is able to sell, the report said. Supermarkets should also extend their ranges of cosmetically ‘imperfect’ produce.

Meanwhile, food that is not even too ugly to be included in wonky ranges should be considered for inclusion in products such as processed foods, like ready meals. “Supermarkets should publish their cosmetic specifications and their crop utilisations percentage to enable comparisons to be made between retailers,” the report added.

Feedback also called on retailers to commit to publishing independently-audited data on the food waste produced in their operations and through their supply chain.

“Currently, Tesco is the only supermarket to provide publicly available data which includes a model of estimating waste occurring in their supply chain. We commend Tesco’s approach of working with their top 24 suppliers to commit to 50% reduction in waste by 2030 and recommend that other supermarkets find similar ways of collaborating with suppliers on waste reduction,” the report said.

Supermarkets need to take on more of the risks of the unpredictability of the weather and market, including implementing whole crop purchasing, regardless of cosmetic standards. Plus, providing reassurance to suppliers that a shortage on order volumes due to weather or ripening patterns will not affect their trading relationship would also be helpful, the report said.

With food waste and transparency increasing becoming important to consumers, this is an issue supermarkets and suppliers would be wise to work on. And imperfect vegetables deserve their day on the supermarket shelf too...

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