First the good news: food manufacturers are not squandering resources in profligate overproduction with a disregard for where the waste goes. In fact, they are good at squeezing the pips from every last morsel.
Now the bad news: UK consumers trash 8Mt a year, according to the Waste & Resources Action Programme (2010). This is more than eight times that discarded by manufacturers, yet as a country we still manage to pack away a third more nutrients than we need (World Wildlife Fund (WWF) 2011).
So when Marks & Spencer's (M&S's) director of sustainability Mike Barry gets on his soapbox and exclaims: "We cannot carry on just trying to shift more and more units of stuff. We need a totally different approach to consumption." He's right.
"If you'd asked me two to three years ago why manufacturers should be concerned about waste before it gets to the food chain or after it's left the retailer, I'd have said: 'They're not,'" says Professor Toine Timmermans, head of sustainable food chains at The Netherland's Wageningen University. "But we've really seen a shift in attitude and it's driven by food resource concerns. Cost wasn't sufficient; it's availability of raw materials that's also the issue now."
His team is engaged in 20 processor-funded studies to identify, minimise and, ultimately, eliminate, food waste from raw material supplier to consumer. Principally concerned with the fresh produce, meat and dairy sectors, the work will help inform the Fusion project, a new euro 4M programme facilitated by Wageningen for the European Commission. It's already attracted 80 signatories, including UK processors and retailers, and is due to be rolled out in London in October.
"The ambition of the Commission is to reduce food waste by 50% by 2020 and the goal of the consortium is to help it do that," explains Timmermans. "We believe if everybody wants it, it can be achieved. The best opportunities occur when looking at the whole supply chain, but the dilemma for firms is that most of that waste is generated by the consumer."
David Bellamy, environmental policy manager at the Food & Drink Federation (FDF), says shoppers are in denial. "When you try talking to them about food waste issues, they come back to you with packaging issues. But in environmental terms it's non-sensical because food waste is a much bigger problem."
While he dismisses the idea that the industry only has itself to blame by building in excess via promotions, he accepts there is more it could do for the buy-one, get one free Brits.
Next year the FDF will begin a major consumer messaging campaign on food waste alongside ongoing work on multi-portion, resealable, freezable and longer-life packs, such as M&S and Tesco's ethylene absorbent strips that have already cut dumped fruit and salad by at least 4%.
Such initiatives are not only morally desirable, but they make bottom line sense, too. Studies show that every £1 of waste saved, wherever it occurs in the chain, is equal to £1 of profit, which would require between £3 and £4 of additional sales to generate.
In fact, the only thing a company has to shift is attitude. Think tank IGD's pilot programme to reduce waste among 33 chilled processors and retailers by doing nothing more than collaborating better was so successful last year in preventing 38,000t being created that it has now escalated into an industry-wide online forum that went global in May.
"Waste Prevent Connect provides a mechanism for anyone in the supply chain to exploit," explains IGD's Efficient Consumer Response manager James Tucker. "You can highlight the problem with a trading partner on the website, firms pledge to find the right person to talk to, IGD tracks whether the conversation took place and if an action plan was agreed and then implemented."
Silo thinking overcome
It follows several examples of where thinking in silos was creating a mountain of unintended consequences that, at worst, ended up in landfill at £64 a tonne or, at best, cost the company hassle to re-purpose.
"People work very hard towards KPIs (key performance indicators) and sometimes they can be immune to the effects of some of their decisions. M&S and Uniq were a good example," says Tucker.
"Uniq had the paradigm that it had to be right to persuade M&S to have additional sandwich stock keeping units. They realised some 'problem child' lines with low sales and high volatility were costing even them money. It wasn't right for the shopper, M&S or themselves and they changed their way of looking at things."
By reviewing forecasting and ordering processes, improving tracking of products that were consistently under- or over-ordered, and giving Uniq more access to M&S data, the two managed to reduce cash losses by up to 31% and waste to sales by 5%. Overall, 39.5t of waste were prevented in a year.
"It's a small example of the millions of tonnes that can be saved," says James. He has now moved on to work with Silver Spoon, Heinz, Rank Hovis and others to achieve similar results with dried goods, where losses have less to do with shelf-life and forecasting and more to do with handling and stock damage.
So where is the science in all this? Apart from a questionable enthusiasm for expensive anaerobic digestion, which recovers a fraction of the energy used to manufacture wasted product in the first place, governments have done little until now to encourage technologies that could have a massive influence on reducing losses.
But with 2014 designated the European year of war on food waste and targets for cutting the EU's 89Mt now in place, that could change.
Eef de Ferrante, founder director of the new intelligent packaging industry association, the AIPIA which will hold its first event during Tokyo Pack in October believes smart technology is about to come into its own with the printing of radio frequency identification (RFID) labels on product now a reality.
"This is an amazing step forward because it reduces cost dramatically from up to 50 cents to embed a tag to less than a cent to produce it on a label. And if you know not only where the product is but, thanks to smart packaging, the condition of that product you can organise its distribution better."
In Norway, where producers are faced with the daily challenge of transporting fresh goods over long distances, researchers at the life science institute Nofima are not only looking at recycling food into biomaterial packaging but also embedding it with natural anti-microbials, such as oregano and cinnamon, which has been shown to improve meat storage.
"The applications for biomaterials and nanotechnology are exciting in both food and pharmaceutical sectors and governments are now looking at this very seriously," says de Ferrante.
"If the entire industry works together, we hope we can force a breakthrough in the supply chain, so even retail companies will say: 'This adds value, let's invest.'"
"When RFID comes through at a product level, it will be a game changer," agrees Tucker. "But we must not let silver bullets such as ethylene absorbers and RFID take our eye off the ball because it's as much about improving routines and processes particularly at the interface between trading partners. If you don't keep throwing the spotlight back on them, those little dysfunctions will creep in again."
Fairshare for food distribution
"In a fast-moving, just-in-time industry, there are inevitably going to be food surpluses. That's not a crime. But letting them go to waste is," says Lindsay Boswell, chief executive of the food distribution charity FareShare.
Working with partners such as Nestlé and Produce World, the charity aims to distribute 4,300t of product to soup kitchens, refuges and other agencies this year.
The difficulties FareShare and similar charities face was highlighted earlier this year when Kerry McCarthy's Food Waste Bill was drafted. It would have created an obligation for the food industry to redistribute surplus food free while removing retailers and processors from any liability.
While the McCarthy Bill is likely to fertilise Westminster's long grass, it prompted manufacturers to come forward.
"But they need a lot more encouragement," says Boswell. "There are logistical and management implications of tying up with us, but any firm that wants a future has to be both profitable and ethically minded. And I have yet to meet a single business that does not want to do the right thing."
Take Produce World. It has worked with the charity to find other uses for more than 9,000t of waste veg.
"It's a little clunky and it does cost us money to support FareShare," says director of agriculture Andrew Burgess. "But their intentions are spot on and they have done a great job highlighting this immoral waste of good food."
* More details at www.fareshare.org.uk .