A report on food waste produced by the United Nations Environment Programme and Wrap (the Food Waste Index Report 2021) concludes that the overall impact of producing food that is thrown away amounts to around 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
The researchers found that 931 million tons of food was thrown away in 2019, equating to 17% of all food produced globally. This news comes at a time when global commitments have been given to halve food waste by 2030 and when the UK government has committed to net zero emissions by 2050 and a target of a 68% reduction by 2030.
The report finds that around 70% of food waste is at household level, while 16% comes from manufacturing, 11% from the food services sector (pubs, restaurants, etc) and 3% from retailers.
It seems clear that the UK must make a bigger push to tackle waste generation at all levels of the food supply chain. No doubt campaigns targeted at reducing household waste will be important in helping with this. However, a review of how best before and use by dates are applied by manufacturers and retailers, alongside an education programme for consumers, could also play a part.
Use by dates must be applied to food that goes off reasonably quickly and will become unsafe to eat if left too long. However, many retailers will apply cautious use by dates to ensure that goods are sold whilst still at the optimum level of quality, even if they are still safe to eat beyond that date.
Best before dates indicate the date up to which a product will start to decline in terms of quality. Many consumers do not understand that food past its best before date can still be safely eaten.
The combination of consumer confusion about best before dates and the application of shorter use by dates consequently contributes to significant levels of waste as food which is still safe to eat is discarded. Perhaps it is time for a clear, centrally led, messaging campaign for consumers, alongside a review of the application of use by dates.
If global food waste were a country it would be the third biggest polluter after the US and China, according to campaigners, who are urging governments around the world to do more to tackle the problem after a UN-backed report found nearly a billion tons of food is being thrown away each year. Around a fifth (17 per cent) of all the food produced worldwide was thrown away in 2019, amounting to an estimated 931 million tons.