By Katherine Price
Last month, the government made the decision not to make food waste reporting mandatory for large food businesses in England.
The decision followed a consultation on improving food waste reporting, which included responses sourced from the hospitality sector. Respondents were presented with three policy options: maintaining current measures, enhancing voluntary agreements, or requiring large food businesses in England (those with at least two of the following: annual turnover of £36m, 250 employees or an annual balance sheet total of £18m) to measure and report their food waste.
Despite “general widespread” support for the latter (80%), the government concluded that the cost to businesses and the public sector, the burden of regulation and the chance this could further drive food inflation for consumers were too high.
“The challenge is the resource and time to measure waste and potential upfront cost of implementing changes,” says Mowgli CFO Matthew Peck.
“Mandated reporting risks being another cost to the industry and a distraction from the day-to-day challenges of operating in the current environment. We support measures to reduce waste but [they] need to be practical and effective solutions in conjunction with the industry, not simply more reporting.”
Indeed, the costs to businesses are potentially far from insignificant – the report estimated that it could cost up to £32,362 per year for a business new to food waste reporting. Costs and staff shortages were also highlighted by respondents as key barriers to overcome, as well as the issue of processes and systems being different across the UK nations.
Following the consultation, the government will instead be looking at how to improve the number of businesses voluntarily reporting. This decision will not be reviewed until at least mid-2025 with no changes made until at least a year later.
However, the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA), which contributed to the consultation, has expressed its disappointment at the decision.
“It’s a shame that this consultation has not brought about the implementation of mandatory food waste reporting across the UK. I personally believe that policies like these will be necessary in order to drive the scale of change that we need across the industry; a system of voluntary reporting simply isn’t strong enough,” says SRA managing director Juliane Caillouette Noble.
The SRA has highlighted its 2015 FoodSave project, which saw an estimated annual saving of £6,063 per business following a four-week food waste audit; that it expects much of the cost of data collection to be borne by waste management service providers rather than restaurants; and that delaying reporting until 2026 at the earliest will leave just four years to hit the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12.3.
“If we stand any chance of meeting our Courtauld 2030 and SDG 12.3 targets to halve food waste by 2030 – we need more decisive action from policymakers,” adds Caillouette Noble.
According to WRAP’s 2022 progress report, 46 hospitality and food service businesses had committed to its food waste reduction roadmap, a number that while small, includes some of the UK’s largest restaurant chains, food outlets, hotel groups, contract caterers and food service providers, and represents almost 20% of the market by turnover. It’s going in the right direction, but the government consultation highlighted that the number of businesses voluntarily reporting has stalled and is expected to plateau.
“The roadmap report indicates steady increase from the hospitality and food service sector, but this does need to accelerate if the 12.3 goals are to be realised,” acknowledges Eleanor Morris, WRAP’s special advisor for business collaboration.
The SRA was involved in the consultation, surveying businesses in its network as well as working with the Hospitality Sector Council to produce a collective industry response. The organisation recommended mandatory food waste reporting not just for large foodservice businesses, but medium ones, too.
Some respondents to the survey argued that making it mandatory to report food waste would ensure fairness, consistent and robust reporting across businesses and sectors, as well as transparency and accountability. The government recognised that it would “provide a key opportunity for companies to review business models and make strategic changes to drive progress”.
Many of the larger businesses and quick service restaurants are already doing a good job of building food waste reporting into operations and driving down internal waste, the SRA says, but it adds that regulation is necessary to level the playing field and remove the fear businesses have about being a ‘first mover’ and risking negative publicity.
The organisation added: “Waste is still significant across the entire supply chain, and most medium-sized businesses aren’t doing as much as they could be. Furthermore, without proper measurement, it is often the case that businesses think they’re doing better than they are. This is proven again and again though the introduction of waste measurement technologies like Winnow; once kitchens have systems like this in place, it really highlights what has been missed or underestimated, and this can be a real eye-opener.”
Peck says that the industry is aware of the challenge, is working on it and agrees that the challenge is ensuring accurate and reliable data.
“Plate waste is probably more of an issue than prep/spoilage waste,” he adds. “Part of being a responsible operator is to ensure you are serving appropriate portions to guests and monitoring feedback from guests, much as we would for other aspects of the guest experience.”
The SRA has backed a simplified format of the data capture sheet used by the WRAP food waste reduction roadmap, with clear definitions of food waste, inedible and edible food waste, and clarity on whether beverage waste is included or not.
Were mandatory reporting to be brought in, the organisation believes that warnings, formal cautions and enforcement actions should be used for one year of non-compliance, after which prosecutions or financial penalties should be deployed, except where the brand does not have full waste management control of its facilities.
Such financial penalties, says the SRA, would need to be sufficiently high to act as a deterrent (for example, higher than the cost of reporting and the CO2e cost of the average food waste for a business of their size) and could be set in proportion to the size of the business. It advocates for funds raised from penalties to be directed towards food waste measurement and reduction and/or climate action programmes.
However, the SRA also argues that before penalties can be enforced, the government must support businesses to collect accurate data and address structural issues throughout the supply chain that reduce data accuracy.
Mandated reporting may not be the perfect solution to reducing food waste, and it’s not a policy that we will see come into force just yet. Instead, the onus is on hospitality businesses to do what they can in the meantime, with high impact recommendations are outlined in WRAP’s Hospitality and Food Service sector Action Plan.