Counting the Cost of Food Waste: EU Food Waste Prevention - European Union Committee Contents

CHAPTER 2: Defining, Monitoring, and Setting Targets for Food Waste

    "By 2020 […] disposal of edible food waste should have been halved in the EU."[17]

20.  It was on this target, set by the European Commission in 2011, that we initially based our inquiry. As we quickly learned, however, this apparently simple statement is fraught with difficulties. Underlying the issue of a target are three fundamental questions, which we set out to address in this chapter:

  • How should food waste be defined?
  • How can food waste be measured?
  • Can a target be set, and action taken, before decisions have been made on definitions and monitoring?

Defining food waste

21.  As yet, there is no commonly agreed definition of 'food waste', although the World Resources Institute is coordinating the development of a common global approach to defining and measuring food waste, known as the Food Loss and Waste Protocol.[18] At an EU level, 'waste' is generically defined as "any substance or object which the holder discards or intends or is required to discard".[19] Application of that definition to food is, though, far from simple.

22.  At the heart of the debate over a definition is a question as to whether such a definition can apply throughout the supply chain, from 'farm to fork'. The difficulty was apparent in the different language and terms of reference used in the evidence heard and submitted by those representing different stages of the food supply chain (see Figure 1).[20]


The language of food waste along the supply chain

23.  Waste at the producer end—farmers and fishermen—is considered to be particularly complex. Crops may be grown, but never harvested, for unavoidable reasons such as the weather and crop disease. Once harvested, they may be wasted because of demand fluctuation, shape and damage during harvest or storage. Livestock and fish may be wasted as a result of disease, regulation and cultural attitudes to the consumption of certain products, such as offal.[21]

24.  Moving further along the supply chain, waste may be more evident but remains challenging to define.[22] From the manufacturer through to the consumer, food waste includes unavoidable material such as egg shells, pineapple skin, apple cores, meat bones, tea bags and coffee grounds. On the other hand, some waste is more easily identifiable, including food left uneaten on a plate in a restaurant and, at home, food purchased but not consumed.

25.  Against that complex background, there have been attempts to define food waste. During our inquiry, the most commonly referenced definition of food waste currently available was that of the FAO (see Box 1), a definition which considers that food waste through the supply chain needs to be differentiated and that unavoidable material should not be considered as food waste.


FAO definition of food waste

The FAO makes a distinction between the unintended "food losses" at the beginning of the supply chain from producer through to processing and manufacturing, and "food waste" towards the end (from retail and final consumption) where the food discarded is more likely to be as a result of an intended decision, particularly in relation to consumers. It also excludes 'unavoidable' or 'inedible' material from food loss/waste.[23]

26.  A number of witnesses expressed support for the FAO definition and, in the absence of other definitions, it has been adopted by the "Every Crumb Counts" Joint Food Wastage Declaration, launched by FoodDrink Europe.[24]

27.  Others disagreed that a distinction should be made between waste at different stages of the supply chain.[25] The UK Government explained that "Using 'loss' for part of the supply chain and 'waste' for another part separates into two terms something which often has full supply chain drivers and impacts."[26]

28.  WRAP proposed its own definition aligned to the need to focus efforts on food waste prevention: "Food waste is any food (or drink) produced for human consumption that has, or has had, the reasonable potential to be eaten, together with any associated unavoidable parts, which are removed from the food supply chain."[27] Similarly, a number of witnesses summarised their perception of food waste as any food that was originally produced for human consumption that is then used in other ways.[28] This included a clear view from environmental and farming organisations that all food wasted, even when due to unavoidable natural conditions, should be considered to be food waste. It was acknowledged that a distinction should therefore be made between avoidable and unavoidable food waste and between the policy approaches to those types of waste.[29]

29.  The FUSIONS project (a pan-European initiative, which is currently working on standard approaches to food waste definition and measurement; see Chapter 6 and Appendix 6) is finalising a common definition that can be applied to all food supply chain stages, food product categories and at different geographical scales. The draft final version of this is currently being peer reviewed and was due to be published in spring 2014. The approach in its current form uses the term 'food wastage' to refer to only the edible fraction of food waste.[30]

30.  There was a further question as to whether a definition should be developed at the EU level. Several witnesses were supportive of the principle of developing a common definition, including through the FUSIONS project.[31] Some witnesses questioned the efficacy of 'top down' definitions.[32] It was also put to us that different priorities across Member States point to different approaches to the definition of food waste. Where food waste is generally not disposed of through landfill or energy recovery, a definition is more likely to reflect a focus on prevention, redistribution and potential use as animal feed. Such Member States will be keen to ensure that the use of material represents the optimal sustainable solution. Elsewhere, more waste may tend to be disposed of in landfill, incinerated or sent for energy recovery. A definition might therefore focus on the different treatment methods applicable at that stage of waste.[33] The challenge of attempting equivalence of meaning across the EU in different languages should also not be underestimated.[34]

31.  Food waste is more apparent, and easier to define, towards the end of the supply chain. At the producer level, though, the issue is much more complex, particularly in relation to on-farm losses. We conclude that food grown but not harvested due to adverse weather conditions should not be considered as food waste. On the other hand, food not harvested for other reasons, such as change in demand, should be included within the definition of food waste.

32.  We conclude that the idea of a universal food waste definition that works across the food supply chain and at different geographical scales defies the complexities of the European food supply chain. We recommend that a more productive approach would be to standardise approaches to defining different material and waste flows at each stage of the food supply chain, including unavoidable waste.

Monitoring of food waste throughout the supply chain

33.  After observing the difficulties of defining food waste, we turned to its monitoring. The range of food waste data types and sources collected at different levels and for different purposes is summarised in Appendix 7. These include: information reported to the EU Statistical Office (EUROSTAT) by Member States; food waste monitoring programmes for both households and other sectors; data submitted voluntarily by businesses under voluntary agreements; and innovations designed to help with monitoring close to sources of waste generation, such as the Unilever mobile phone application for chefs (see Chapter 3, paragraph 88). The Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME) cited other emerging innovative tools such as the websites '' and ''.[35]

34.  The difficulties relating to food waste definition, and the lack of standard approaches to measurement, impinge on the quality of available data at all levels. At the producer level, it was conceded that pre-farm gate data on food waste are particularly weak. WRAP noted that existing estimates of agricultural food waste in the UK are indicative, and based on a 2004 Environment Agency synthesis of evidence available at that time.[36] The lack of data was related to the difficulty of monitoring losses at this stage of the food supply chain as well as the definitional problem of classifying what is 'food waste' in the field.[37] It was argued that, for this area to develop, more research is needed across the EU, including into the extent to which food wastage may be beneficial to local ecosystem integrity due to its nutritional value when spread on land.[38] Some preliminary work on pre-farm gate losses is currently being conducted in Scotland.[39]

35.  It was clear from the evidence that individual hospitality and food sector and retail businesses, by contrast, are in a relatively good position to assess their own food waste when motivated to do so. The caterers, Sodexo and ARAMARK, offered compelling evidence of their efforts in the food service sector to that effect. In the hospitality and food service sector it was noted that, generally, the separation of waste was a helpful way of demonstrating the levels of food waste to employees. Rather than all company waste being put into one bin, food waste would be discarded separately.[40] Similarly, large retailers informed us of efforts within their businesses.[41] According to witnesses, in both the hospitality and food service industry and retailer sectors, voluntary agreements have been instrumental in driving progress on data collection.[42]

36.  For food waste arising from smaller businesses, however, which tend to predominate within the hospitality and food service sector, the voluntary disclosure of such statistics is unrealistic. Estimation is then reliant on sampling and surveying techniques. Sodexo told us that the overall estimate for the hospitality and food service sector across Europe, produced by FoodServiceEurope,[43] is likely to be unreliable and based on inconsistent methodologies.[44]

37.  We heard that the monitoring of consumer food waste is also a particular challenge. Estimates of total quantities as well as detailed compositional data are needed to inform waste prevention and awareness campaigns.[45] Evidence from WRAP, which has experience of conducting such compositional studies since 2007, suggested that research on consumer food waste is complex to undertake.[46] High quality compositional data is "invaluable in the formation of waste reduction campaigns",[47] yet for the majority of Member States such studies have not been carried out.[48]

38.  We conclude that food waste is a data-poor area across the main sectors where it arises. In some instances, assessment has been shown to be possible. This is particularly so among larger retailers and food service companies. It is, however, much more difficult to assess the quantity and nature of food waste at the producer, manufacturer and consumer levels and within smaller businesses in particular.

The current state of EU food waste statistics

39.  It is evident from the work carried out for the Commission in 2010,[49] based mainly on 2006 EUROSTAT statistics, that the measurement of food waste across the main food waste generating sectors is incomplete, with a near total absence of waste statistics in some Member States. Furthermore, the Commission's 89 million tonne estimate is based on a significant element of extrapolation for the retail/wholesale and food service/hospitality sectors in particular. The overall estimates suggest that household food waste contributes the highest proportion, with the food and drink manufacturing sector accounting for most of the remainder (see Figure 2).


EU-27 food waste arisings, percentage (%) weight by sector[50]

40.  The combination of the limited number of detailed research studies conducted within Member States, the uncertainties of estimating food waste from within datasets reported to EUROSTAT that do not specifically relate to food waste fractions[51] and the widespread use of extrapolated factors has resulted in a picture where country-to-country variation is difficult to explain. For example, France manufactures more food and drink than the UK, but significantly less food waste from French manufacturing has been reported according to the 2006 EUROSTAT data.

41.  A EUROSTAT project is currently underway that involves voluntary food waste data collection activity among 16 Member States based on 2012 data, to be published in June 2014.[52] This will attempt to test how to 'plug-in' a more detailed breakdown of food waste within the existing reporting requirements of the EU Waste Statistics Regulation.[53] While this is likely to provide a more detailed account of which waste streams contain food waste, it is not designed to quantify total food waste.

42.  In order to boost data availability across the EU, the current Member State reporting requirements must be reformed, so that food waste can be more reliably identified. This requires action on the part of EUROSTAT and Member States in order to reform some of the existing reporting categories that currently conceal food waste estimates.

Data reporting

43.  The evidence suggested that there is considerable room for improvement in data reporting by food and drink manufacturers, retailers and in the food service industry. We heard that an innovative way of doing so would be through the encouragement of open data reporting at the company level, such as the Norwegian[54] ForMat project (see Box 2).[55]


Norwegian ForMat project
The ForMat project is an ongoing collaboration between producers, retailers, research institutions, environmental organisations and the government, to chart and minimise food waste in Norway.

The project began in 2009 through a cooperative effort between supply chain sectors, including Food and Drink Norway, Food and Agriculture Norway, and bodies representing industry, retailers and suppliers. The project is financed by the Norwegian ministries of the Environment and Agriculture, both of which are also represented in the project's steering committee. In 2011, the project received additional support from the ministries of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs, of Trade and Industry, and of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion.

The project has four sub-projects, with a budget of approximately 8.2 million NOK (Norwegian Krone) (approximately €1 million) over its original four-year lifespan:

·  charting and analysing the volume of food waste in Norway between 2009-13;

·  networking along the value chain to reduce the volume of wasted food;

·  communication and knowledge transfer of results, ideas and experience relevant to avoiding waste of food in Norway; and

·  prevention strategies/tools, including packaging, size of packaging and shelf life.

ForMat's goal is to contribute to a 25% reduction in food waste in Norway by 2015. This corresponds to a value of 5 billion NOK (€650 million), and whilst considered a realistic goal, it requires an attitude shift, better knowledge and better daily routines.[56]

44.  Sodexo lent its support to an EU policy on obligatory data reporting.[57] This might build on recently agreed EU provisions regarding the publication of non-financial information by large companies, which set a framework for the publication of environmental data. While food waste data are not explicitly included in that framework, nor are they excluded.[58] The Dutch government preferred an EU voluntary framework.[59] The announcement by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) in late January 2014 that from 2015 all the major UK supermarkets would report their food waste statistics on an annual basis is an indication of a shift towards more open data reporting through a voluntary approach.[60]

45.  Recent developments in the UK and Norway illustrate how voluntary public disclosure and greater openness about food waste arisings can be successfully achieved. Although a compulsory reporting framework for large companies could be feasible, the European Commission should consider ways of facilitating voluntary public disclosure. Recently agreed EU legislation on the disclosure of non-financial information by large companies, including environmental information, offers a possible framework for such voluntary reporting.

Funding data collection

46.  We were warned that monitoring and data collection activities are often resource-intensive. For example, in relation to WRAP's voluntary agreements under the Courtauld Commitment (see Appendix 5) the inquiry was advised "not to underestimate the challenge" of creating systems for collecting, verifying and reporting data collected from signatories.[61]

47.  It was therefore with some concern that we heard that funding from the UK Government to support the work of WRAP had been cut. In November 2013, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced a reduction in WRAP's annual funding for delivery work in England from around £25 million to approximately £15 million.[62] WRAP's work on food and drink waste reduction was cut by £3.6 million. The Chief Executive of WRAP admitted that there was a danger of a loss of momentum, a "potential concern" which was acknowledged by the Minister.[63] On the other hand, the Minister expected the support provided by WRAP to have acted as a catalyst for businesses to understand the economic benefits of taking their own action to tackle food waste.[64]

48.  Food waste monitoring and data collection across the supply chain must be effectively resourced across the EU. In the UK, there is a high risk of false economy if the cuts to WRAP's funding to support food waste prevention ultimately lead to resource inefficiency in terms of economic costs to businesses and households, and environmental costs from greenhouse gas emissions and water and energy consumption. We therefore recommend that the UK Government work closely with WRAP to assess the impact of the budget cut on WRAP's ability to contribute to food waste prevention, particularly in the context of its unique ability to work along the whole supply chain.

Taking action

49.  The fact that reliable data are not available has led to a division of opinion as to whether action on food waste should be taken now or postponed until data have improved.[65] The collection and understanding of food waste data was noted as the starting point, with such insights leading to action.[66] As the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) stressed: "a very important part of the food waste debate is to have a sound evidence base on which you can judge future policy".[67] This has been the approach taken by WRAP since 2007, where the building of an evidence base has generally preceded action and has been used to inform programmes of work to deliver food waste reductions in households, the grocery supply chain and, most recently, in the food service and hospitality sector.[68]

50.  On the other hand, we heard that there are "no regret" actions[69] that could be taken, and that these could be addressed without the need for food waste definitions and data to be fully developed.[70] Witnesses emphasised that efforts to standardise definitions should not eclipse other priorities in acting on food waste.[71]

51.  A common definition, a coherent set of data and reporting requirements are not prerequisites for action. We consider it self-evident that, in a resource-efficient Europe, all involved throughout the supply chain should be looking to minimise waste of all varieties.


52.  One method currently used to encourage action is through the setting of a target. We began this chapter by mentioning the Commission's 2011 aspirational target of reducing edible food waste by 50% by 2020. Since then, we understand, France and Germany have adopted a non-binding 50% reduction target by 2025 and 2020 respectively. Other Member States have additionally set their own national targets, such as the non-binding targets in the Netherlands to cut food waste in the food supply chain and households by 20% by 2015,[72] and in Austria by 20% by 2016 (for households only).[73]

53.  In the upcoming Communication on Sustainable Food, the Commission is expected to revise its target downwards.[74] Any change in ambition would reflect the different progress made across the EU and the different levels of data available.

54.  The lack of a common definition and satisfactory data and monitoring across the EU were the principle reasons mentioned by our witnesses as to why it would not be appropriate at this time to introduce a binding target at the EU level.[75] Having no agreed methodology on the measurement of food waste, including "what constitutes food waste", would make it more difficult to ascertain the progress of Member States.[76] Marks and Spencer observed that most food waste is generated by consumers in the home. Consequently, "while the theory of a target could definitely work, the practice of implementing that and being able to report against it to show that a difference had been made would be really hard".[77]

55.  On the other hand, it was considered that an aspirational target would send a clear political signal about the ambition of policy makers in this area, particularly in terms of making EU food waste reduction a high priority.[78] For Sodexo, the importance of such a target was that it "raises a profile" and acts as a focal or reference point, not just for Member States, but also for organisations in allowing them to align business strategies or improvement programmes.[79]

56.  One of the few witnesses who did support a binding target, the Anaerobic Digestion and Biogas Association (ADBA), emphasised that it must be evidence-based in that the level of reduction set would need to be realistic.[80] The stated main benefit of a binding approach was that "to a degree it gets around politics" because any incoming Member State government could easily ignore an aspirational target, but could not ignore a binding target.[81] We understand that responses to the Commission's consultation on sustainable food,[82] carried out in 2013, found that consumer groups, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and some national governments were far more supportive of such an approach than food and drink sector trade bodies, retailers and manufacturers.

  1. We conclude that a binding target requires adequate baseline information, which is simply not available across the EU at present. Given the difficulties relating to a common definition across the supply chain, we recommend that consideration be given to the development of aspirational targets for each level of the supply chain. We believe that aspirational targets set at the EU level could help focus Member State attention and encourage efforts to prevent food waste throughout the supply chain.

17   COM(2011) 571 Back

18   Q 40, Q 217, Q 283 Back

19   Directive 2008/98 Back

20   Q 40, Q 50, Q 65, Q 165, Q 247 Back

21   Q 16, Q 40, Q 134, Q 224, Q 287, Defra, IME, NFU, WRAP Back

22   Q 148 Back

23   Global food losses and food waste: extent, causes and prevention, the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology, May 2011, a report for the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations Back

24   Q 27, Q 40, "Every Crumb Counts" Joint Food Wastage Declaration  Back

25   Q 65, Defra supplementary, WRAP Back

26   Defra Back

27   WRAP Back

28   Q 65, Q 113, Q 134, Q 265, Unilever Back

29   Q 16, Q 40 Back

30   Q 149, Q 194 Back

31   Q 27, Q 40, Q 51, Q 80, Q 103, Q 113, Q 123, Q 218, Q 252, Q 264, Copa-Cogeca, Defra, Waitrose  Back

32   Q 247, Q 265  Back

33   Q 149, Q 247 Back

34   Q 50, Q 149 Back

35   IME Back

36   Review of agricultural waste research and development projects, Environment Agency, 2014 Back

37   Q 16, Q 67, Q 152, Copa-Cogeca, Defra Back

38   Feeding the 5,000, Defra  Back

39   Q 196 Back

40   Q 56, ARAMARK Back

41   Q 212, Q 225 Back

42   Q 25, Q 56, Unilever Back

43   See Back

44   Q 52 Back

45   Q 5, Q 110, WRAP  Back

46   Q 195 Back

47   Shropshire Council Back

48   Preparatory study on food waste across EU 27, BIO Intelligence Service, a report commissioned by the European Commission, October 2010 Back

49   IbidBack

50   IbidBack

51   Q 144 Back

52   EU data collection on food waste, OECD Food Chain Analysis Network, 4th Meeting, 20-21 June 2013 Back

53   Regulation No 2150/2002  Back

54   Although Norway is not a Member of the EU, this project has been cited as evidence as it provides a useful example. Back

55   Q 123, Feeding the 5,000 Back

56   Report from the ForMat project 2011 - reducing food waste, ForMat Back

57   Q 52 Back

58   Directives 78/660 and 83/349, both of which would be amended under the proposed Directive COM(2013) 207. Informal agreement between the European Parliament and Council on the draft legislation was reached in February 2014. Back

59   Q 130 Back

60   A Better Retailing Climate: Driving Resource Efficiency, BRC, January 2014 Back

61   Defra Back

62   Review of Defra funding for WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) - Summary report of the review and responses to the opportunity to comment document, Defra, November 2013 Back

63   Q 205, Q 295 Back

64   Q 295 Back

65   Q 144 Back

66   Q 211 Back

67   Q 28 Back

68   Q 191 Back

69   These are actions with no negative consequences. Back

70   Q 286 Back

71   Q 144, Defra  Back

72   Q 123 Back

73   "Food is precious" - the initiative, Austrian Ministry of Life Back

74   Q 163 Back

75   Q 1, Q 49, Q 194, Q 242 Back

76   Q 25, Q 49 Back

77   Q 80 Back

78   Q 39 Back

79   Q 49 Back

80   QQ 252-253 Back

81   Q 252 Back

82   Consultation: Sustainability of the Food System, European Commission Back

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