Supermarket Waste

Supermarket Waste

British supermarkets could learn from the French

If I could find some statistics on supermarket waste in the UK, you would be absolutely gob-smacked. But these elusive figures are either being hidden, or simply don’t exist. The latter option is the worst, because it would imply that no-one cares about the millions of tons of food which are rejected, often for cosmetic reasons, every single day, by every single British supermarket.

I know that this rejection takes place, from my short time working on logistics for a lovely company who import (in the winter) and grow (in the summer) sweet peppers for British supermarkets. There was an astonishing volume of peppers being sent to the supermarket distribution centres, every day, but the amount of peppers which were either dumped before they left the pack house, or rejected by the supermarket buyers was equally surprising. And the most common reason for rejection? Rot? Damage? No: The colour! Orange peppers starting to turn red, or two-tone yellow and green peppers were not good enough for discerning British customers, EVEN IF THEY WERE GOING INTO PROCESSED FOODS!!

The pepper company, who took care to grow their high quality fruit using natural farming methods, such as bees for pollination, composted their wasted peppers, to give to local farmers, but what do the depots do, who are dealing with all manner of rejected foodstuffs?

A few of tonnes of peppers are thrown away each day, but that’s one single kind of fruit. Now multiply that by the number of other fruit and vegetables that you see in the supermarket. Then think of aaallll the other food products that the shop sells. That adds up to millions of tonnes of food going to waste, every day, often for no good reason.

Some people like to have multi-coloured peppers! Most people don’t want to be paying extra for their food, because the supermarket’s buyers reject so much decent stock, on the customer’s behalf, that prices have to rise to cover supplier’s costs. And I think most people would rather that colour-defficient food was given to hungry people, rather than thrown in a colossal bin.

From the supplier’s point of view, this wastage makes business very precarious. Profit margins are tiny enough as they are, and the daily stock rejections have a devastating impact. Suppliers rely on their valued but poorly-paid warehouse staff to stick to tight time schedules, and churn out stock by the crate-fulls with zero loss, wastage or mishaps.

Image-centred, consumerist Britain, could start accepting variable veg…? If it paid the same prices for this new, quirky style of food, the factory staff could earn better wages. Or, alternatively, the saving could be passed on to the customer, so that the poorly-paid factory staff could buy cheaper food for their families.

Another cause for stock rejections is obviously that of food which is past it’s best (or will be by the time it hits the shelves), or damaged. But with a system where food is sent on a 200 mile round-trip, just to get back to 20 miles from where it started, it’s hardly surprising that the things go off or get damaged! Supermarket logistics managers insist on central distribution centres, wherever their stock is destined for, and make no allowances for local distribution networks. Some transport companies – and fuel companies – will be making a fortune from this merry-go-round, but I’m not sure that fuel bosses need to be making many more piles of cash, whilst hauliers could start local divisions, if the market changed.

The hidden but phenomenal waste of supermarket food not only impacts the all-too distant ‘environment’, but also hurts the supermarket’s customers. It’s time to knock these retail giants down a shelf or two, and let them know what we want, rather than what they think we want. It’s time they stopped having such negative impacts on the whole structure of the UK economy. Hard work and carefully produced food have little value, but prices are kept high, anyway, to cover for the amount of stock that is considered rubbish. Not a single pepper, that has been planted as a seed, grown into a plant, born fruit, looked after, picked, sorted, packaged and delivered should be allowed to rot through inefficient transport systems, or garbaged due to ‘colour fade’.

The most frustrating thing is that I know lots of people, me included, who choose to support local produce in supermarkets. But does that really count as voting with our feet, if the local produce travelled as far as the non-local? How about, every time you go to the supermarket, your find their feedback box, and fill out a slip, complaining about the distribution network, lack of local produce, or the horrible uniformity of all the fruit and veg? And we could get all our friends to do the same? The managers will notice this trend, and pass the message on to their head office.

Or we could really try to stick to small, local retailers and producers, and our own vegetable patches or allotments.

© Gem Driver 2005

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Gemma is a food writer, who lived in France for eight years, and now divides her time between her cottage in the rural Dordogne and her home in the UK.

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