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Q&A: Julian Edwards FCSI on food waste

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Julian Edwards is chair of FCSI UK and Ireland. As the division prepares to set up a taskforce to tackle food waste, working with the manufacturer Meiko and a range of industry partners, he spoke to Thomas Lawrence about the foodservice sector's outlook on this pressing issue

One of the more recent frontiers in the fight against food waste is regulators and businesses relaxing their approach to best before dates. Both the Co-op and Tesco have announced initiatives in recent months. Is this a positive development?

If we’re talking in terms of foodservice we think in terms of use by dates, and best before dates are a secondary consideration. Chefs can judge a product by its smell, look or even noise to determine if it’s still good to use between the best before and use-by dates. It’s a diligent process for foods that are considered high risk like meat. But in the retail and consumer sector it’s a big issue. We need to support the wider domestic consumer to address households disposing of food even though that product is still safe to eat. But the rule for both is if in doubt, chuck it out – food safety is always paramount.

What are the key types of food waste that need to be tackled?

The UK and Ireland could well be leading this, getting industry experts involved. There’s prep waste with peelings and other trimmings, as well as how we deposit fats, oils and greases down our drains, and there’s plate waste, a generic term referring to what customers leave behind. Additionally there are products that have been prepared and not sold that may not be able to be sold the next day!  How they are then managed is a massive issue, and this is where local authorities around the country [for the domestic market] are now imposing regimes on domestic waste – bin bags must be inspected occasionally and fines imposed if you haven’t correctly split up your waste.

What sorts of solutions are gaining traction in the industry?

It’s all to do with how waste is deposited, how it’s sent to the correct recycling centres and treatment processes. Things can be recycled and turned into energy or other sources of utility or goodness – see advancements in the biodiesel industry and how they use fuel. Some are offering quirky solutions. In 2017 there was the bio-bean, a fantastic London-based company using coffee grinds to produce fuel blocks. That epitomises innovation in recycling food waste in even greater detail to create something quite sustainable.

What specifications do you recommend going forward to minimise food waste?

FCSI in the UK and Ireland is committed to producing some substantial guidance that covers every element of waste. One example is the person who builds a school, hospital or hotel; their architectural teams can be fully informed and have the correct systems to be put into place for waste management – drainage, waste traps, service equipment. And above the kitchens there’s the issue of extraction and what goes into the atmosphere. We’ve got great initiatives and ideas to input into that. With FCSI we’re setting standards for every type of activity whether that’s building or operating food premises – we’re covering all areas.

What’s the starting point for kitchens needing to cut down on food waste?

Improved habits among kitchen managers – checking the bins (even weighing and accounting for types of waste), menu schedules to reduce over production, craft training for better food production to include utilising the whole vegetable or diverting some bi-products into other dishes.

A simple one-pager printed and laminated and put up in the kitchen so staff understand cleaning systems, using sink meshes that capture granules of food and other waste so it’s not going down the drain, and a whole raft of chef tips on how to manage kitchens will act as a daily reminder.

Having a bit more care and attention for the disposing of fat, oils and grease will be of higher interest to local authorities, national government and the water boards looking after our sewers. Businesses can find out about approved carriers of waste in differing categories to ensure they are doing it correctly and legally.

Where are you expecting FCSI’s work in this area to lead?

We’re going to need this substantial bit of work because there are quite a few spinoffs – you’ve got food waste, how it’s transported and taken away from a premises, when is the best time to take away from the premises and so on. A kitchen might purchase pre-prepared vegetables and fruits because they’re too small or lack the skill to pre-prepare products, meaning there’s then no peelings from that pre-peeled sack of potatoes. However the global thinkers point out there’s going to be waste somewhere down the line in factories – what about that waste? It exists at the source – an interesting point because caterers wouldn’t often think about that. We need caterers to think outside the box to consider the global impact of food waste.

What can organisations do to boost efficiency around the food they would otherwise throw away?

There are several elements of food waste generation. Going back to the original conversation on best before end and use by dates, a caterer will have a perfectly palatable amount of stock left at the end of the day but a lot of professional kitchens won’t carry waste forward to the next day’s production. These may be dispensed in a bin or they could go the extra mile and connect with charities. Food can then be taken to another premises and sold cheap with controlled food safety. So that’s a real corporate social responsibility that some organisations have taken on very well. They can tick a more substantial box there, taking away from landfill and sewage and giving it to more needy individuals.

Presumably many of these lessons can be applied in institutions like schools and hospitals too?

Food waste in schools, particularly in the primary sector, is an extremely sad thing to see. You could have up to 40% of food collected in waste bins. That can be attributed to a number of factors – a customer’s fussiness, the food isn’t actually that good or the child in question may have had a very sedentary day due to a lack of physical education. On the healthcare side a substantial amount of waste is coming back from wards that also has to be disposed of. There are other factors too – the packaging of single item food products, for example a pack of crackers or individual portion of cheese, is designed for patients confined to hospital beds who often can’t even open the packet. That’s stimulated the NHS packaging taskforce which has been going for a couple of years to try and promote manufacturers and make their packaging easier to open.

What’s the overall advice you’d give to foodservice operators aiming to cut back on food waste?

The advice we give is twofold – building design needs to incorporate all the key attributes of waste management and emphasis on the lifecycle costs to clients, as an efficient kitchen is much more efficient with the right waste management design. Emphasising eco-friendliness at the same time is crucial. More and more clients are appreciating that they need to be sustainable in anything they do.

How can consultants help?

We are the experts. This is part and parcel of the way we talk. These factors crop up ten years later if the drainage system hasn’t been installed correctly – it’s a hugely valuable thing. We as a consultancy body inspire and lead on systems and ideas which manufacturers can follow rather than waiting for the next gadget. The other big piece of advice to consultants would be to build in contractual terms so operators protect the client’s interests when it comes to waste management. If kitchen staff and managers abuse the waste systems they can be taken to task and re-charged.

Thomas Lawrence