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There has been some interesting reporting recently in the Guardian about this case, in which three men who had taken dumped food from a supermarket skip in London were prosecuted for theft. (The charges were dropped at the request of the supermarket management -- whether for sincere reasons or PR reasons is difficult to know.)

I think prosecuting people for using food which would otherwise be wasted is an ethical misuse of the law.  It is also truly alarming just how much supermarkets throw out.  As was pointed out in the comments on this article, though, not all the responsibility for this sorry state of affairs lies with the retailers.  Shoppers have come to expect supermarkets to carry everything, all the time, with no regard to seasonality.  A supermarket geared to reducing waste, like a small restaurant, would offer less variety.  That seems to me a price eminently worth paying.

Does anyone know of good research on schemes for reducing the amount of food waste in modern distribution processes?

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Comment by Sam Bradford (Admin) on February 17, 2014 at 5:54

Good points, Dennis, especially re: catering.  That's an interesting case.  I'd agree that part of the job description of catering for a wedding (for example) is ensuring that there's no chance of food running out!  I don't think that supermarkets are in quite the same position though.

The reason you don't want food running out at a wedding is that the people there are 'trapped', for a few hours at least.  The only food they have access to for the duration of the event is that provided by the caterers.  (Of course, providing a deliberate excess is the norm at weddings for other reasons, but let's put that aside for now.)  The situation at a supermarket is different, because if one line of products is unavailable there's usually an adequate substitute.  If the supermarket has no fresh tomatoes because it's the middle of winter, you can buy tinned ones, or use a different vegetable, or change your cooking plans to accommodate this.  Chances are the situation won't be a net loss to the supermarket -- you'll buy something else, otherwise you don't eat.

A supermarket that operated according to the principle of minimum waste would be at a competitive disadvantage in places where customers can afford more than the minimum of food, it's true, because customers would get tired of having to cook according to what was on offer instead of buying exactly what they wanted.  BUT this is a mindset that could be changed, I think, especially if the supermarket explained their approach clearly to customers, and wasting less should make it possible to lower prices, which will always be an incentive for shoppers.  So the target market for a low-waste supermarket would be thrifty, flexible people with some cooking ability; a demographic that may not currently be huge (in the First World) but could grow, with encouragement.

I'm not sure about your statement that 'excess food goes to feed the hungry'.  It does in a limited sense, in that some stuff gets given to foodbanks.  Clearly though, there's a huge amount that's not going to anyone. The food that's in a dumpster isn't going to anyone, unless they claim it themselves.  Further along the foodchain too, the food that gets dumped by consumers isn't going to the hungry.  If First World supermarket shoppers were able to use food more efficiently, prices globally would (theoretically) drop, allowing the poor to purchase more.  (I acknowledge that in reality it's not that simple, and that when demand for food is reduced agricultural land might instead be turned over to non-food cash crops for the wealthy!)

Anyway, thanks for your comments, I find it a thought-provoking topic.

Comment by Dennis McCunney on February 14, 2014 at 4:09

A supermarket geared to reducing waste, like a small restaurant, would offer less variety.  That seems to me a price eminently worth paying.

Worth paying by whom?  And to what end? There seems to be an assumption that if it weren't thrown out, it would magically go to those hungry.  It doesn't work that way.

Small restaurants have an economic incentive to reduce waste: food thrown out is food not purchased by a patron, and raw materials cost.  Chefs make their best guess based on history of what demand will be for items on the menu and prepare quantities accordingly.  Sometimes they guess wrong.

Other food servers have different metrics.  I know a woman who works for a caterer, and she had a conversation at a gathering with another person who was in the restaurant business.  She said "You want to run out.  We never do."  People attending events her employer caters want to get anything being catered.  Running out of an item isn't an option.  So they prepare and have available more than their worst case estimate of what demand will be for any item, and are a major contributor to the local food bank in the area they serve. 

Supermarkets are in a position analogous to caterers: patrons want to purchase the foodstuffs, and supermarkets try to have it available.  They can't sell it if it isn't in stock.

Most of what a supermarket stocks is canned and packaged goods with fairly long shelf lives, and frozen foods with similar characteristics.  The stuff that gets tossed is fresh food that goes bad quickly.  You don't want to offer it for sale, because it's a potential health hazard to those who might eat it, and you can't simply give it to a worthy cause for similar reasons.

And food waste is by nature biodegradable, so far less of a problem in disposal.

If supermarkets tried to reduce waste by reducing purchases and what was offered for sale, what would the net effect be?  Reduced purchases mean reduced demand, and less sales by those who grow/raise/package the foodstuffs.  They also mean less patronage by consumers, who will go instead to the market(s) that do carry what they want. Efforts to feed the hungry rely on surplus food.  What happens to those efforts if you reduce the surplus?

Supermarkets would probably love to reduce the amount they throw out.  After all, stuff they throw out is stuff they didn't sell.  But doing so would require far more accurate forecasting of what demand will be.  They do their best to forecast demand because they are retailers, retailing is about sales per square foot of selling space, and any retailer wants to devoted limited shelf space to what sells. You may assume analysts for supermarkets are constantly tracking sales and trying to adjust stocking accordingly, but it's simply not possible to get it perfect.

I'm not aware of research on the lines you asked about, but it probably exists.  The incentives are economic: waste is food not sold, and lost revenue for those in the distribution chain.



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