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Sainsbury’s boss says supermarkets must be made to publish food waste data

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 05/10/2016 David Cohen

<span style="color:#888888;font-family:'Fira Sans', Helvetica, Arial;font-size:14px;">Panellist: Sainsbury&rsquo;s boss Mike Coupe</span> © Provided by Independent Print Limited Panellist: Sainsbury’s boss Mike Coupe Sainsbury's boss Mike Coupe has a reputation as a guarded, thoughtful man who eschews publicity, very much in contrast to his predecessor Justin King.

So when he sticks his head above the parapet to level criticism at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, you can be sure the food industry — and Defra — will take note.

Asked if Defra should do more to tackle food waste by calling on all supermarkets to “go naked” and publish their food waste data, Mr Coupe was emphatic. “Absolutely,” he said. “This is an area where Defra should act. But I would go beyond merely setting guidelines. Supermarkets must be made to follow suit so we can compare performance on a fair and consistent basis.”

He went further. “We take a view that the more level the playing field the better, so I would also subscribe to the principle that it should be applied to fast-food outlets and restaurants, and perhaps later to manufacturers too.”

Government legislation, he admitted, had played a decisive role five years ago in dramatically cutting the surplus food supermarkets send to landfill by imposing penalties for non-compliance. So did he think that the French system — where supermarkets that fail to set up food donation partnerships suffer penalties of £3,000 — was the recipe for real change in the UK? 

“I don’t think that would be helpful,” he said. “Better to encourage supermarkets to compete to be leaders on tackling food waste and come to the party voluntarily.” But would they? “Yes, the industry in the UK is tremendously customer-focused and we can act,” he said. “We collectively reduced the amount of salt we put into our products, for example.”

Until recently, only Tesco had published its food waste data with Sainsbury’s becoming the second supermarket to do so when it released its food surplus — including a breakdown of how much it donates for human consumption — exclusively to the Standard as part of our investigation. Our ground-breaking exposé showed Sainsbury’s donated 7.6 per cent of its surplus compared with 4.5 per cent for Tesco. Taken together, the top 10 supermarkets donated a risible 3.2 per cent of the total retail food surplus.

Sitting in a meeting room in Sainsbury’s Holborn Circus headquarters, the normally taciturn Mr Coupe went on the front foot, insisting there was nothing to stop all the major supermarkets furnishing Defra with this information. “Under the Courtauld agreement, supermarkets already provide this data to [waste charity] Wrap who undertake to keep it hidden,” he said.

Why had Sainsbury’s decided to come clean and release its data? “Customer pressure,” he said. “Fifteen years ago, I suspect it barely registered, but today, when we survey our customers about our corporate and social responsibility, food waste is consistently the number one issue. Plus we feel we have a good story to tell.”

Mr Coupe admitted that while Sainsbury’s had made progress since he took the helm in July 2014, it “still has a long way to go”. “In the last year we have more than tripled the number of Sainsbury’s stores with food donation partnerships, from 215 to 833, and the volume of food donated has risen from 1,200 tonnes in 2014/15 to 2,935 tonnes in 2015/16. But we are still, as the Standard pointed out, only donating 7.6 per cent of our food surplus. And that is not where we need or want to be.”

His vision is to quadruple food donations. “Our surplus is 38,767 tonnes and of that 50 per cent is reusable —though to get to that figure is not practically achievable.” So what is feasible? “Probably 25 per cent.” Over how long? “A three- to five-year timescale would not be unrealistic.”

But to make that happen, he said, supermarkets need ways to redistribute the food — “and that’s where consolidators like Felix can make a difference”. Mr Coupe was referring to The Felix Project, the flagship charity at the heart of the Standard’s drive to repurpose surplus food to tackle food poverty, and which has attracted financial backing from Sainsbury’s.

“I welcome the Standard’s campaign because it forces the issue,” he said. At the same time, he is keen to avoid the debate becoming too simplistic. “The logistics are complex,” he said. “I read Ruth Rogers talking in the Standard of the difficulty of giving her 120 daily River Café customers a choice of dishes whilst also avoiding waste, so consider our challenge with 27 million customers. This country can be five degrees one week, 35 degrees the next, raining one minute, sunny the next. We have to manage that volatility of demand. On the whole we do a good job.”

Does he think food poverty can be beaten in London? “Yes, for sure. It’s a matter of willpower. If the will is there, if the organisation is there. I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all solution. And of course, that is where fantastic new initiatives like Felix can be a big help.”

On Monday, he will make a rare public appearance on the Evening Standard’s food forum to debate solutions to food waste. Is he looking forward to it? He smiled wryly. “Lucky me. Up there with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.” He laughed. “That will be an interesting conversation.”@cohenstandard

Our food for London campaign

What is it? 

This £1 million-plus initiative seeks to redistribute surplus food to tackle food poverty.

What are we doing?

1. Backing the scale-up of The Felix Project — our flagship charity — which picks up surplus produce from food suppliers and delivers it to a range of charities that provide meals for those in need.

2. Awarding grants to groups through an open grants programme.

Who can apply for grants?

If you are a charity, community group or social enterprise tackling food waste and/or using fresh food to address food poverty, you can apply for a grant of up to £20,000. Apply by November 11 to The London Community Foundation at: londoncf.org.uk/grants/food-for-london.aspx

Who are our backers? 

We have raised over £800,000 for Felix from Citi, Sainsbury’s, Lush founders Mark and Mo Constantine, the Evening Standard Dispossessed Fund, a hedge fund boss and the Felix Byam Shaw Foundation, which has pledged to match money raised for The Felix Project with up to £750,000. 

The £320,000 grants programme is funded by Citi, D&D London and the Dispossessed Fund.

How you can help 

The Felix Project is looking for more:

Food suppliers including supermarkets, wholesalers and food outlets.

Charities which provide meals for those in need and could benefit from free fresh food.

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