Supermarket food waste: Is it as bad as Tesco CEO Ken Murphy says?

Food waste has been a huge topic both within and outside of the sustainability space.

As the cost-of-living crisis continues, causing record-breaking amount of food banks to be set up in the UK, there have been questions about what happens to food supermarkets don’t sell – and whether supermarkets are doing enough.

They’ve certainly been taking action, with many (if not all) addressing the issue by removing ‘best before’ labels from milk, vegetables and other lines, food redistribution charity the Felix Project says the industry still generates 3 million tonnes of edible surplus food each year.

Currently, it is not mandatory for supermarkets to publish food waste data – so, arguably, they’re not being held to account.

Ex-Defra secretary Michael Gove had proposed to establish mandatory food waste reporting rules and was widely backed by the industry for doing so, with 80% positive responses following an official consultation.

However, in July this year, Defra delayed the rules until the end of 2026 the earliest, saying it will work with companies on a voluntary basis instead. The U-turn received backlash from Tesco and Too Good To Go.

Too Good To Go founder Jamie Crummie said at the time that the delay is a “significant blow to the country’s reduction efforts, made pressing during a cost of living crisis, and risks exacerbating dangerous environmental challenges”.

Despite the rollback, Tesco CEO Ken Murphy has been urging the government and supermarkets to focus on data, describing the move to mandatory reporting as “crucial” to allow the UK’s largest supermarket to meet key goals, such as halving food waste by 2030.

In a blog post published last month, Murphy shared the supermarket became the first to report its food waste data in 2013,

“We haven’t sent any food to landfill since 2009 and were proud to be the first retailer in the UK to publish our food waste data back in 2013 – encouraging others to do the same,” Murphy wrote.

But is supermarket food waste really as bad as Murphy says? And what are other grocery giants doing to decrease their surplus food?

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Every little helps

Tesco follows a food waste hierarchy when deciding the right way to handle any food surplus. Food which is still good to be eaten is donated to people as a priority, via charities and community groups such as FareShare and Olio, or free-of-charge to Tesco colleagues via its ‘Colleague Shop’ initiative.

Last year, it donated more than 20 million meals worth of surplus food through Olio.

Food surplus project manager Cheryle Wetherburn said “no-one wants to see good food go to waste,” especially with “so many people facing food insecurity in the UK”.

“We are working harder than ever to make sure food gets to those who need it,” added Wetherburn.

Since 2016/2017 the supermarket giant has reduced overall food waste in its operations by 45%. Last year, it revealed it created a total of 25,064 tonnes of food waste in the UK, but, crucially, it’s also transparent about where that waste then goes.

Perhaps the transparency is because Tesco is proud of its processes –  the grocer hasn’t sent any food to landfill since 2009. Instead, any remaining surplus is converted to pet or animal feed where possible.

What isn’t edible for humans or animals goes to energy recovery via anaerobic digestion.

Every Lidl helps

Tesco is not the only supermarket reporting its food waste trends – Lidl has also been doing so since 2016.

On its website Lidl states: “Following our commitment in 2017, to cut our food waste by 25% per store by 2020, we felt it was more important than ever to make our food waste data publicly available.

“Not only does the data give us a clear understanding of how much food waste we produce, and where it comes from, it also helps our customers, suppliers, and a wide range of organisations that are all working to reduce food loss.”

The supermarket has now committed to reducing food waste by 50% by 2030. Currently, less than 1% of food in Lidl stores goes to waste.

Edible surplus food is redistributed through the ‘Feed it Back’ scheme in partnership with Neighbourly and additional inedible food waste is converted into biogas via anaerobic digestion for fuel.

Investigating food waste solutions

Aldi also reports on its food waste metrics and has been doing so since 2017.

The food waste produced by the retailer has decreased by 42% in that time, dropping from 44,249 tonnes of food to 25,702 last year.

Aldi is supporting its growers to reduce waste in its supply chain by flexing agreements to accommodate crop failures and gluts, such as introducing larger pack sizes for a limited time.

While the supermarket doesn’t state where waste ends up, Aldi is currently investigating ways to turn food that can’t be donated into animal feed.

Silent on volume, loud on resolutions

While Sainsbury’s didn’t comment on how much food waste it creates per year, there is a lot of information about where its food waste ends up.

The supermarket hasn’t sent any waste to landfill since 2013. Last year, Sainsbury’s used 23,443 tonnes of food waste for anaerobic digestion and just over 5000 tonnes for animal feed.

Over 4000 tonnes of surplus food were redistributed to local communities.

A Sainsbury’s spokesperson told Sustainability Beat that since working with food-redistribution partner Neighbourly, the retailer has 16.8 million meals worth of surplus food to charities and community groups.

In a bid to reduce food waste, Sainsbury’s – like many other supermarkets – are moving from use-by dates to best-before dates on its own milk range to encourage customers to judge whether the milk is still good to drink.

AnalysisFeatureFood and farmingRetail

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