New DEFRA guidance: a pivotal moment for waste management?

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A new initiative from UK regulators is the latest move in the fight against food waste, reports Thomas Lawrence

EU figures suggest 88 million tonnes of food are wasted annually across the continent, at a cost of €143bn. The global figures are even more dramatic, with a third of the total food produced for human consumption lost or wasted.

Governments have realised there are economic benefits from cutting down on the quantity of food lost, tossed or otherwise squandered in the supply chain. The British government is seeking to reap some of these benefits with new food labelling guidance from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in conjunction with sustainability lobbyists WRAP and the Food Standards Authority (FSA).

The framework, published at the end of November, includes a new food label advising shoppers to store purchases below 5°C, and clarification on “use by” and “best before” labels. “This new guidance will make packaging much clearer for consumers, saving them money and reducing waste,” said environment minister Thérèse Coffey.

Waste of time?

One of the hurdles faced in the fight against food waste is the need to solve a global problem amidst disparate national agendas. In Europe the Paris Accords, agreed in 2015, are helping to drive change. According to Mick Jary, specification manager, Meiko UK, “the EU is committed to reducing CO2 emissions by 40% by 2030. Countries that sign up who fail to achieve will face massive fines.” There’s no guarantee, however, that countries will implement the required standards consistently. Jary says communicating the need for change – across the retail and commercial sectors – will be one of the main challenges for consultants over the next 18 months.

Even within countries, consistency is not guaranteed. Despite new guidelines around food waste, Britain is a prime example. Jary points out the architecture of local government means Scotland and Northern Ireland are already implementing their own directives on food waste, leaving the rest of the UK to catch up.

Chairman of FCSI UK and Ireland Julian Edwards notes divergence goes right down to authority level, exemplified by the proliferation of local initiatives around food waste. “There are some great schemes across the UK and Ireland,” he says. “FCSI is going to do is a comprehensive up-and-under approach to waste which considers the atmospheric waste that we pollute and deposit. There are so many great local ideas which we’re not sharing.”

Confronting different challenges in different sectors is another obstacle consultants will have to navigate. Edwards is clear that the new DEFRA guidelines still leaves work to be done. In the foodservice arena chefs can use “organoleptic testing” with use-by dates as a cutoff point, so the guidelines will likely have little impact there. In retail, on the other hand, “a million households will dispose of food that has gone past its best before date even though that product is still safe to eat.” Attitude change from below – whether from restaurants looking at more sustainable ways of dealing with “prep waste” and “plate waste” or households being more provident with edible food – must match regulatory efforts from above to achieve meaningful change across the industry.

Challenges ahead

Edwards and Jary are in agreement that waste management needs to be a high priority on consultant agendas – but also that clients may see things differently.

“Cost is a big factor here,” says Edwards. New design approaches may help to economise on waste, but “could be considered optional extras in terms of efficiency.” It’s a sentiment echoed by Jary: “the clients are sitting there saying they understand the need to adhere to any legislation, but it’s going to cost us money so we won’t do it until we really have to.”

Reluctance from firms to stump up the money for big investments is understandable, but sustainable solutions could pay off in years to come. Consultants should be prepared to stand up for the value of sustainable waste management: “Clients may be architects or estate experts or award-winning designers,” says Edwards, “but they might not be chef-centric kitchen designers. This is why getting an FCSI consultant in at the beginning of a build programme pays for itself ten times over.” A cavalier attitude to pouring grease down the drain or throwing out reusable food can come back to haunt clients further down the line.

Jary notes there is half a kilo of food waste for every plate served in a UK restaurant. Whether that’s down to preparation, incorrect cooking, poor storage or plate waste, change is needed. “Consultants will have an important role to play because they’re the ones who have got to go out there and advise their client base on how it’s going to work and, operationally, how their clients can work efficiently with whatever legislation comes in,” he says.

Cleaning up

How can consultants contribute to the fight against food waste? Jary encapsulates the answer in one word: “education.” A recent consultant panel hosted at Meiko concurred that spreading awareness around the need for a more sensitive approach to food waste would be vital. “It’s not just educating the clients,” adds Jary. “It’s educating ourselves first – working with CESA (the UK’s Catering Equipment Suppliers Association] and DEFRA, and taking that education forward”.

Edwards agrees the consultant-to-consultant relationship is just as crucial as the consultant-to-client relationship. “Even now we could put our hand on heart and say not all of us know every initiative and bit of work going on in the UK and Ireland,” he says. “We need to work to enhance education for all members internally”.

This, Edwards continues, should be taken as an opportunity. “We can bring in some great manufacturing initiatives which is important, and stimulate work the FCSI has done in the paste which includes working with water authorities on things like sewage and grease management.”

Spreading the news about waste-saving innovations among consultants in the know is an important precursor to saving frittered food. In addition to landmark developments – Edwards gives the example of the “circular economy”, with uptake of biodiesel and companies converting coffee grinds into fuel blocks – this can mean tweaks in consultants’ day-to-day work yielding leaps in efficiency. Edwards advises “an element of contractual obligation” around food waste, introducing warnings for members of staff responsible for blocking drains to nudge them into making more waste-conscious choices.

Seen in this context, DEFRA’s guidance looks more like a drop in the ocean rather than a sea change. But, as Jary says, “anything people can do to minimise food waste is very positive.” Consultants across Europe should be prepared to embrace such guidance and drive regulatory impetus further still. Their input on waste management will be indispensable for their clients, the industry and the entire planet.

Thomas Lawrence