Author Gina Clarke

Major supermarket chain Co-op yesterday announced its plans to sell food after its ‘best before’ date in a bid to tackle the ongoing issue of food waste.

In January 2017, WRAP – Waste and Resource Action Programme, reported that the UK was throwing away £13bn of food each year, equivalent to £470 per family. Now Co-op is taking on the advice of the Food Standards Agency who say that the best before date is about food quality and not food safety.

The Co-op announced yesterday that it will be selling items past their best before date for just 10p on Monday at 125 of their East of England stores. These “perfectly edible” items will sit alongside tinned goods and dried food which have also run past their best before date.

10p items flying off the shelves

In speaking to trade magazine The Grocer, Roger Grosvenor, joint chief executive of East of England said that they appreciated the opportunity to save money, with many of the 10p items flying off the shelves within an hour of them being reduced during the scheme’s trial period.

He added: “This is not a money-making exercise, but a sensible move to reduce food waste and keep edible food in the food chain.”

Previously Co-op has announced that relatively little of its business goes to waste, around 1.3%, but the majority of this is made up of unsold produce. It doesn’t always go to landfill, indeed the supermarket says, “If a product still goes past its durability date in store, it is taken to a local depot where it’s sent to anaerobic digestion to produce energy and compost.”

But this new and bold plan means not only is the supermarket making a business decision in saving up to 50,000 items a year that would otherwise have gone to waste, but it is also tackling a more social issue, that of food poverty.

Tackling waste and food poverty

According to charity Trussell Trust, users of food banks in the UK are increasing. The trust estimates it had around 560,000 users in 2016/17 although it doesn’t reflect the total number of people who might be using it. By selling goods at 10p a time that are still deemed perfectly edible, it could make a huge difference to those struggling financially.

Other big supermarkets have also put together measures this Christmas to deal with surplus waste. Tesco and Aldi will be handing out unused fruit, vegetables and meat that could spoil when they close their doors over Christmas to registered charities and community groups. By giving away any unsold fresh food not only are they helping those less fortunate over Christmas but Aldi believes it will save around 20 to 30 crates per store from going to waste.

Tesco’s ‘No Time For Waste’ campaign goes straight to the source of the problem, providing a hotline for suppliers and stores to ring when it sees large amounts of waste. When a warm summer in 2016 led to a bumper crop of strawberries, Tesco increased the container size so that less packaging was thrown away that year.

Co-op is not the last supermarket to jump on to the waste bandwagon either, earlier this year Morrison’s began selling deformed avocado’s at a third of the price of normal shaped ones. And over the spring, MPs campaigned for shops to launch wonky veg boxes, with both Asda and Morrison’s taking up the mantle. Now households can enjoy veg to feed the whole family, if a tad out of shape, for as little as £3 per week.

Stores are changing household attitudes

Figures show that the way stores are dealing with waste are changing household attitudes successfully. Co-op signed up to WRAP’s Love Food Hate Waste campaign when it started in 2007 and has the words prominently featured both in store and on a wide range of products, including broadcasted on the in-store radio and in branded magazines. According to the campaign’s statistics, around half of all food waste happens in the home with one-third of all food purchased simply thrown away. Either by cooking too much, misunderstanding of best before dates or incorrect storage, it is a staggering amount of food being thrown away.

The message seems to be working, figures show that between 2007 and 2012 household waste was reduced by 15%, that’s 1.3million tonnes according to the Co-op website.

Now the supermarket hopes to change household attitudes in regards to best before dates. Of course with 2,800 retail premises trialling the services in just 125 stores is a mere drop in the ocean but no doubt the company will be examining customer feedback on its somewhat controversial decision.

Of course, over the last year, the recycling success story by far has been plastic bags. With a charge for plastic bags introduced by the UK government in October 2015, customers were levied with a 5p charge per plastic bag, although some retail outlets such as Tesco capped this at 40p. This has saved an estimated 6 billion plastic bags since the charge’s introduction as shoppers continue to re-use instead of throwing away their plastic bag supply. The uptake in England alone has meant that the usage of plastic bags has dropped by a remarkable 85%.

The question to ask now is will Co-op’s venture make the same leap for best before dated food? It may not be a surprise to see other large-scale supermarkets following the lead, WRAP campaigns are well supported and as seen by the plastic bag campaign, known to make a difference.

Indeed, could 2018 be the year for ‘best before’ cooking? With blogs and YouTube videos already offering tutorials and recipe’s, it certainly won’t be long before the trend leaves East Anglia and is adopted by the rest of the country.