Food waste is again a hot topic in the food sector with the launch last month of FoodDrinkEurope’s multi-stakeholder programme, Every Crumb Counts. Ben Cooper spoke with Tove Larsson, director of environmental affairs at FoodDrinkEurope, about the new initiative.

very Crumb Counts is a catchy title for the multi-stakeholder initiative on food waste launched by FoodDrinkEurope (FDE), which brings together organisations from the European food chain and civil society in a concerted push on what is fast becoming the pre-eminent sustainability challenge facing the food industry.

Part pithy slogan and part rallying cry, the name also speaks to a critical aspect of the food waste and food loss issue.

While there is much discussion of how the agri-food sector can sustainably expand production to feed around 9bn people by 2050, there is an increasing focus on how it must first address the huge amount of food produced but not consumed. In that context, every crumb does indeed count.

The question was at the heart of a report on food waste published by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME) in January which looked at the issue from an engineer’s perspective, examining current inputs and whether they were being used efficiently. With its stark analysis, the report attracted much media coverage, and the interest it sparked underlined the increasing attention being given to the food waste problem.

Indeed, Tove Larsson, FDE’s director of environmental affairs, says the level of attention has increased markedly even since the publication last June of FDE’s Environmental Sustainability Vision Towards 2030, from which Every Crumb Counts emerged. By the same token, never has the pressure been greater on food companies to take action.

As part of Vision 2030, FDE surveyed partners and stakeholders about sustainability challenges facing the industry and “food waste came out as the top challenge and priority that these surveyed stakeholders thought we should address”, Larsson states.

The initiative takes the form of a joint declaration by a range of stakeholders associated with the European food chain, including FoodDrinkEurope, the European Organization for Packaging and the Environment (Europen), the Sustainable Restaurants Association, the European Fresh Produce Association, FoodService Europe and the European Potato Trade Association.

Taking as its guiding precept the familiar food waste hierarchy concept, which puts prevention of waste at the top of a pyramid and disposal at the very bottom, the Joint Declaration comprises a raft of broad undertakings to work towards preventing edible food waste, to promote a life-cycle approach to reducing wastage, and proactively contribute to European, national and global solutions and initiatives. In addition, it makes a number of recommendations to policymakers.

Among the commitments, signatories pledge to raise awareness of food wastage along the food chain, encouraging “all partners of the food chain to identify where food wastage occurs and take appropriate actions”. They also commit to contribute to the development and dissemination of best practices for identifying and preventing food waste, a key part of which is the launch of the FDE’s own Food Wastage Toolkit.

The signatories also commit to contribute to the development of a common EU definition and methodology for assessing food wastage. As the authors of the IME report stressed, the lack of common definitions and methodology around food waste is complicating the quantification of the problem and monitoring of mitigation efforts.

Larsson points out FDE is participating in the EU-funded FUSIONS (Food Use for Social Innovation by Optimising Waste Prevention Strategies) programme. Set to run from 2012 to 2016, a key element in this programme is the harmonisation of how food waste is monitored. 

Providing information to consumers is another key aspect of the initiative. The participating organisations commit to “help consumers make better use of information”, for example relaying the messages of the European Commission’s ’10 Tips to reduce food waste’. In particular, they commit to provide more information about the meaning of ‘use-by’ and ‘best before’ dates, also in line with the Commission’s information campaign.

The undertakings are fairly broad and for some may not deal specifically enough with practices among food producers and retailers perceived to be unsustainable, notably regarding the exacting procurement standards placed on produce. 

Larsson says the joint declaration should be seen as a starting point, and putting some “meat” on general undertakings is the “next step”. For example, the organisations commit to encourage food operators to “explore” the creation of markets for food that is currently rejected through, for instance, selling at discount or diverting produce to the manufacture of jams and soups. 

Larsson stresses the importance of having the broadest range of participants. “I would say that it’s key to the solution of addressing food waste,” she tells just-food. “Food waste doesn’t fit in one specific part only in the food chain. It is actually an issue across anything from agriculture, to packaging, to manufacturing, to distribution, to retail, and to the consumer side of things. So it’s really crucial that we have a food chain approach.”

She says the FDE was keen to get the initiative off the ground once a critical mass of participants was achieved, but the intention is to garner more signatories as the initiative proceeds. “We had the crucial amount of support so we wanted to launch this initiative but that doesn’t mean it stops there; the door is open.”

In fact, since the launch on 25 June, FDE reports nine further organisations have signed up to initiative including the European Recovered Paper Association (ERPA), Stop Wasting Food Movement Denmark and the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA).

One particularly noticeable gap among the participants at the time of the launch was the European retail sector. Larsson concedes the absence of retailers was somewhat glaring in view of their vital position in the food chain. However, she says FDE has been in “constructive discussions” with the European retail association, Eurocommerce, “all the way long” and is hopeful the organisation will become a signatory. “I hope that they will get there because it’s important that retailers are involved.”

However, Christian Verschueren, director general of Eurocommerce, told just-food that the organisation was “not likely to sign the initiative any time soon”.

Larsson said discussions with Eurocommerce had centred on the VAT rating for donated food. The Joint Declaration calls for the VAT rate to be ‘fairly low, or even close to zero’ on donated food close to its ‘best before’ date. Among other policy recommendations, the Joint Declaration calls for a tax deduction on food donations as allowed in the US, for the EU to develop guidelines for food donors and food redistribution organisations on how to comply with the EU Food Hygiene legislation, and urges policymakers to fund research on processing, preservation and packaging innovation to prevent food wastage.

Larsson is candid about the “advocacy” element within the initiative. European policymakers are also showing heightened interest in the food waste issue. Explicit in the Joint Declaration is its tie-in with the European Commission’s stated goal of halving edible food waste by 2020, set out in its Europe 2020 Flagship Initiative ‘A resource-efficient Europe’.

More recently, DG Environment has launched its ‘Sustainability of the Food System’ consultation, set to run from 9 July to 1 October. There is a significant focus on food waste in that consultation, which Larsson expects could shape revisions in various areas of EU regulation relevant to food waste.