Its first-ever food waste report reveals confusion and frustration among shoppers.
The Women’s Institute (WI) wants supermarkets to start taking more responsibility for wasted food. As the primary suppliers of most households’ food, supermarkets have tremendous influence over the way people shop. By offering multi-pack deals, packaging that cannot be easily separated, and confusing date labels, supermarkets are making the food waste situation worse.
Between September and November 2016, WI sent out a detailed two-part survey to its 5,000 members across the United Kingdom. One assessed personal consumption and shopping habits, such as deciphering best-before dates and choosing deals. Another involved a visit to a local supermarket to assess the offers on hand and availability of ‘wonky’ fruits and vegetables. The results were published in a report this month, titled "Wasted Opportunities: How supermarkets can help tackle food waste."
The results were surprising and distressing, revealing a serious disconnect between retailers’ rhetoric and what’s actually happening on store shelves and in people’s homes.
Many WI members surveyed expressed confusion about date labelling. Only 45 percent of WI members understand that ‘best before’ is an indicator of food quality (as opposed to food safety). By contrast, a mere 26 percent understands that the more important ‘use by’ date is an indicator of food safety. Forty-one percent assesses food based on its own merit, such as smell and appearance – a distressingly small number. The report states:
“It is estimated that extending the life of a product by just one day could result in 250,000 tons of food waste being avoided, with potential savings to UK shoppers of £500 million (US $625 million).”
Packaging is another problem. Survey participants said they feel pressured to buy multi-pack or bulk deals, such as ‘buy two, get one’, because the price is so much lower. Ninety-one percent of WI members said that they would rather be offered a reduction on a single item than be encouraged to buy in bulk via multi-buys. When packaging is not conducive to easy division and being able to toss in the freezer for later, this also generates additional waste.
“Whilst the WI recognizes that packaging plays a role in protecting food, if the public are overbuying because they don’t have a choice in the amount they buy, which is then leading to waste, the purpose of packaging is being negated.”
This report is particularly interesting because it comes from WI members, a group remembered for its tremendous efforts to preserve food during the Second World War and still viewed as experts in home cooking. Marylyn Haines Evans, chair of the National Federation of Women’s Institute’s public affairs, told The Guardian:
“WI members are some of the more informed members of society about food and cookery, so the fact that they are still confused about food labelling and ‘once-opened’ information is a damning indication that supermarkets must do more to help all consumers reduce their food waste and ultimately save money.”
WI wants supermarkets to take a few key steps to reduce food waste:
- Clarify and standardize date labelling practices
- Emphasize proper care for opened foods
- Sell more ‘ugly’ fruits and vegetables
- Package in smaller quantities at comparable prices
You can read the whole report here.