Tackling food waste – future measures set to force change by FBOs

United Kingdom

There is growing pressure on food business operators (“FBOs”) to reduce food waste and to be more accountable for the food waste they produce. Last week, the Government’s Food Waste Champion, Ben Elliot, held a symposium to launch the new “Step up to the Plate” pledge (the “Pledge”), which asked attendees (including FBOs, members of the hospitality industry, social media influencers and chefs) to make commitments to measure and reduce food waste. This is the first phase of the Government’s plan to minimise food waste and part of its revised waste strategy, “Our Waste, Our Resources: A Strategy for England” (the “Strategy”)[1], with consultations expected later this year on regulatory measures to introduce mandatory reporting of food waste and food waste reduction targets. Change is afoot, but some FBOs have queried its pace and have called for increased transparency within the food industry in respect of the publication of food waste data.  

Drivers for change and current commitments

Leaving aside the financial and social issues associated with food waste, the significance of its related environmental impacts is widely recognised and is considered to need redress. The Strategy reports that the carbon footprint of food and drink consumed in the UK is estimated to be equivalent to one fifth of all UK emissions.[2] Further, methane released by the breakdown of food waste sent to landfill is considered to have a potentially more damaging impact on the environment than carbon.

As such, the Government has committed to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 – which is by 2030 to halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along the production and supply chains.[3] This commitment has been reaffirmed recently in both the Strategy and the Pledge. In addition, the Government will continue to support voluntary initiatives such as the Courtauld Commitment, which aims to reduce per capita UK food waste by 20% by 2025. This voluntary agreement urges FBOs to work across their supply chains to identify food waste hotspots, understand barriers to reducing waste, improve resource efficiency and implement practical solutions. Together, these commitments are envisaged to promote the Government's wider ambitions to eliminate avoidable waste by 2050 and to work towards eliminating sending food waste to landfill by 2030.

Mandatory food waste reduction targets and annual reporting

However, the Government admits that its “determination to cut food waste has not been matched by progress” and therefore a new approach is needed. In view of this, the Strategy states that it will consult this year on:

  1. the introduction of regulations to make annual reporting of food surplus and waste mandatory for larger food businesses[4]; and
  2. seeking powers for setting mandatory food waste prevention targets for “appropriate” food businesses and the introduction of surplus food redistribution obligations (subject to progress made by businesses to targets for food waste prevention).

Exactly when these consultations will be published is currently not known and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (“DEFRA”) was unable to provide projected timings when contacted. Interestingly, when announcing the launch of the Pledge, DEFRA suggested a different approach to its earlier proposition to introduce mandatory food waste prevention targets, stating that it will consult on legal powers to introduce mandatory targets for food waste prevention “should progress be insufficient”. 

If introduced, it remains to be seen how the proposed food waste prevention targets will be measured and whether different targets will be set depending on the size of the FBO. It is also not clear whether there will be any repercussions for businesses who fail to meet the targets, or for any non-compliance with reporting obligations (e.g. prosecution, financial penalties and/or the “naming and shaming” of underperformers). However, without any such enforcement measures, substantive progress may falter. 

In the meantime, FBOs are being encouraged to start annually reporting their food waste transparently, on a voluntary basis, using the online tool Atlas[5] prior to mandatory reporting obligations being introduced. Nearly 100 FBOs have committed to the Food Waste Reduction Roadmap[6] launched by WRAP and IDG in 2018, agreeing to publish details of their food waste. For some, however, the pace of change is not sufficient and have criticised the Pledge as being a missed opportunity to move quickly towards transparency for the publication of food waste data.

Redistribution of surplus food

There is currently little detail in the Strategy on the proposed obligations regarding the redistribution of surplus food and it is hoped that the forthcoming consultations will shed some light on this. In the meantime, the Government has announced that it is setting up a new pilot scheme in collaboration with businesses and charities to reduce food waste and increase the redistribution of surplus food, which is supported by £15 million of funding. Last week, the Government announced that it had awarded more than £4 million to four redistribution organisations in England to help overcome obstacles to food which currently goes to waste from getting onto people’s plates (i.e. by developing new supply routes from growers and local distributors; funding new lines and additional staff; and increasing capacity for repackaging and labelling).

Food and drink waste hierarchy

In addition to the food surplus obligations, reporting requirements and target setting, the Government has published Statutory Guidance on a Food and Drink hierarchy,[7] which sets out a tiered approach to managing food surplus and waste using the following prioritised list of options:

  1. Prevent surplus and waste;
  2. Redistribute surplus food;
  3. Make animal feed from former food;
  4. Recycle food waste - anaerobic digestion;
  5. Recycle food waste – composting;
  6. Recycle food waste – landspreading;
  7. Incinerate to generate energy;
  8. Incinerate without generating energy; and
  9. Send to landfill or sewer.

FBOs are encouraged to apply the options in the order they are listed, however, the Government acknowledges that it may not always be possible to do so and that decisions about food surplus and waste may depend on the cost and facilities available.  Whilst this is Statutory Guidance (and therefore binding), the extent to which compliance will be achieved would appear to fall to the FBO in question. The Government is to review the implementation of this guidance in 2020 – if considered to be ineffective, it is possible that the Government will try to link the FBO's application of the hierarchy to the proposed food waste prevention targets and surplus food redistribution obligations.

Progress monitoring

In the autumn, the Government intends to conduct a survey to assess the progress made by FBOs to implement key industry guidance and best practice on reducing food waste in respect of: date labelling; storage advice; pack sizes; functionality and relative pricing; consumer advice and the provision of loose produce. The results of the survey are to be published transparently, although it is unclear exactly what the Government intends to do with this information, suffice to say that if progress is considered unsatisfactory, it is likely to lead to the introduction of further mandatory measures.

Scotland - Food Waste Reduction Action Plan

Prior to the Pledge, the Scottish Government recently launched a new Food Waste Reduction Action Plan which aims to: reduce unnecessary demand for food; improve how Scotland produces, stores and cooks food so that less is wasted; increase food recycling rates; and make better use of food waste as an organic resource. A key objective is to implement measures to allow Scotland to meet its ambitious target to reduce per capita food waste in Scotland by 33% (from 2013 levels) by 2025. Arguably, the Action Plan therefore goes further than the Strategy and is more advanced - providing greater detail on how it intends to deliver on each of the proposals to meet this target. Under existing laws in Scotland, food businesses in non-rural areas generating more than 5 kilograms must recycle their food waste and, from January 2021, the landfilling of biodegradable municipal waste is prohibited in Scotland. 


Much of the publicity surrounding the Strategy has focussed upon its proposals to expand the existing producer responsibility regimes and, in particular, the proposed reform of the packaging waste regime.[8] These measures will, no doubt, have significant implications for FBOs. However, the proposals to reduce food waste are also likely to impact FBOs considerably, particularly if non-compliance with the mandatory food waste reduction targets will attract enforcement, and if the data provided by FBOs is to be made publicly available. Indeed, consumer and investor pressure to address this issue may, in fact, drive the pace of change faster than the Government's current plans.

FBOs should start looking at their supply chain and processes now to ensure that they are able to adapt their procedures, compile the relevant data and try to reduce food surplus and waste pending the introduction of the mandatory targets and annual reporting obligations. Many FBOs are, of course, well advanced in this process and have already adopted WRAP’s Food Waste Reduction Roadmap, with some going further and already publishing their food waste figures.

The Ellen Macarthur Foundation’s recent report, “AI and the Circular Economy,[9] suggests that food waste reduction can be realised by introducing the use of AI at each stage of the supply process (for example, by using image recognition to determine when fruit is ready to pick; matching food supply and demand more effectively; and enhancing the valorisation of food by-products). Arguably, the new measures could therefore be viewed as an opportunity for FBOs to embrace new processes and innovations, including “intelligent packaging”, which may benefit their businesses in the long term.

[2]Ibid 1, page 99 (WRAP and WWF (2011) The water and carbon footprint of household food and drink in the UK)

[4] The scope of the proposal is not yet clear, as the Government has not provided a definition of a “larger food business”. This is expected to form part of the consultation.