Japan was recently found to throw away more food than any other country in the world. And, being the world's biggest food importer, it also topped a recent food miles shame list. Michael Fitzpatrick reports on what the government and the food industry are doing to tackle such problems.

In Britain we throw away £20bn (US$36.4bn) worth of food each year. That is £420 per person each and every year. But this figure pales in comparison to the world's biggest waster of precious foodstuffs - Japan, where a massive ¥11trn (US$101.6bn) worth of food is thrown away annually.

Surprising you may think for a nation that once prided itself on thrift, a Zen-like self-denial and the ability to turn scraps into gastronomy of the highest order. Some say it is, ironically, because of these historic practices that Japan has the food waste mountain that it does.

There can no other food-adoring nation on the face of the planet quite like Japan. Living, on the whole, extremely tough urban lifestyles, the Japanese have elevated food to one of the most immediate and greatest pleasures - open to every man, woman and child, often at affordable prices and boasting top class quality. For many, it's the one pleasure everyone can enjoy, where spaces are cramped and other treats, like a walk in the park, are largely denied Japanese city dwellers.

Prise open the average middle class fridge and you will witness delicacies shipped in from all over the world that would have a Roman emperor flush with anticipation: The soft, reproductive organs of sea urchin, caviar of all varieties, and obscure pickles nestle amongst the world's finest cheeses, pastas and oils. This is a nation that loves its food to the point of obsession and has built a vast and efficient engine to import and cultivate food to the satisfaction of the globe's pickiest eaters. However this joyful abundance of choice has many downsides.

Food miles

With a low food self-sufficiency rate, (60% of all Japan's foods are imported) Japan is experiencing a massive increase in environmental load from food imports. Marry this to the fact that traditionally a well mannered Japanese person is loathed to polish off what's put in front them - eat only till you are nearly 7/8s full goes the saying - and then add the fact that more and more Japanese are living alone and you are left with a country that fills more swill bins and dump sites with food than anyone else on earth.

Being the world's greatest food importer has also put the country on top of the Food Miles shame list compiled by UK-based Environment group Safe Alliance.

Food mileage is calculated by multiplying the transportation distance with the volume of food transported. The higher the food mileage the larger the load placed on the global environment for the sake of a more varied diet for a nation's population.

Japan's index in 2001 was 900 billion ton-kilometres, more than three times that of the United States, which has more than twice Japan's population. "Not surprising then that the Japanese today have a diet that is more extravagant than the diet of any royalty of any nation of any period in history," a senior agriculture ministry official told the Asahi Newspaper recently.

Government tries to tackle the problem

To tackle this momentous waste problem the Japanese government introduced a Food Recycling law in 2001. Under the Food Recycling Law, all food-related businesses must cut food waste by over 20% by fiscal 2006. This law and increasing pressure from consumers in Japan for greener, ethical food, has spurred companies on to tackle the problems of food wastage.

In homes, 7.7% of all food is discarded, including food tossed out for reasons ranging from expiration of the consumption date to simply preparing more than the family can consume. Restaurants and dining halls, by contrast, are the least wasteful at 3.6%.

According to farm ministry estimates, about 10 million tons of food waste is discarded by businesses annually. About half of the 4 million tons ditched by manufacturing plants was recycled, while the reminder of the remaining 6 million tons from the foodservice sector was burnt or dispatched to landfill sites.

Slow rate of change

The worst offenders are perhaps Japan's legion of convenience stores, where many youngsters and singles do their food shopping. Around ¥10,000 to ¥15,000 worth of lunch boxes are thrown away daily from each shop, that is if the managers can't find homeless people to give them away to. Multiplied by 40,823 konbini in Japan, that brings the waste, in retail terms, to a staggering ¥220bn per year.

This level of profligacy is highlighted by a report in the Japanese weekly magazine Shukan. Its economics reporter recently pointed out that the volume of food discarded by convenience stores and supermarkets because they were past their sell by dates - an estimated 6 million tons per year - is equivalent to roughly 80% of the total volume of food assistance currently being supplied to developing countries, or enough to feed 50 million people for a year. Transposing calories into monetary values, Japan's food losses are roughly equal to the total annual output of its agricultural and fishery industries.

The food industry and retailers complain that to recycle food they first have to gain the cooperation of willing recyclers and farmers to buy the finished product - fertilizer.  Change has been slow.

The Japan Food Service Association, which serves 760 restaurants, had been studying ways to establish a food recycling system since 1993. It took over ten years to kick start an initiative and last year it finally set up a recycling factory for its members.

Top convenience store chain FamilyMart, meanwhile, has introduced strict food inventory controls for its 6,045 convenience stores to limit food waste from the outset. Over 400 FamilyMart stores in Tokyo and other areas, including Kyoto, have their food waste collected for recycling.

Right direction

Still, it is a tiny portion of what Japan likes to give the heave-ho to from the kitchen and the government hasn't even started yet to do something about the huge waste from domestic kitchens. However Tokyo remains optimistic that it can tackle the country's swill mountain.

Toshiaki Nagato of the environment ministry's recycling promotion division had this to say to the Asahi newspaper: "Food recycling is still in its initial phase, and we believe things are going in the right direction." What the government plans to do about the nation's embarrassing food mileage rate he didn't say. Good news for food exporters, bad news for the planet.