As M&S makes a welcome switch to the labels on their milk, WRAP CEO Harriet Lamb calls for more support to cut food waste from our homes

8 June 2023

We’ve all been there: standing stupidly by the supermarket check-out, staring at our receipt, wondering how the bill could possibly be so high. No wonder when inflation for food and drink hit 19.2% in March 2023, the highest in 45 years. These price increases are largely driven by the on-going war in Ukraine, impacting energy prices and disrupting supply chains, compounded by climate change – including severe droughts in many important food-producing nations.

In November 2022, a quarter of UK citizens were concerned about being able to buy enough food, with 71% reporting changes to how they buy, store, manage or use food as a result.

Yet incredibly most of us are still throwing money in the bin – the average family wastes around £700 of good food a year. This is similar in magnitude to the £500-increase in gas bills for an average household between 2021 and 2022. So not wasting food could help people cope with rising bills. Of course, it’s an average; some people are watching every penny and every slice of bread. But others are throwing away food they could still use.

Some people buy deals, with fruit and veg cheaper in larger packs, and then find the goods go off before they can cook them. Others put leftovers in the bin when they could’ve saved them for tomorrow in the fridge, while some, like my normally parsimonious husband who, when I am away, will let food fester gently in the back of the fridge. And many people are confused about ‘Best Before’ dates, thinking it is not safe to eat the food after the date – in fact, it’s fine, just use your eyes and nose! But WRAP research found that people were throwing away perfectly good food because of the Use By dates, and we have been calling on supermarkets to shift the labelling. 

So we are cheering that just this week M&S announced the switch from Use By to Best Before dates on their British and organic fresh milk. This will encourage people to use their own judgement on when it’s still good to drink. Uncovering the potential for changes like this, rooted in evidence, and then working with businesses to make them a reality – it's what WRAP’s all about. Given that milk is the third most wasted food in the home behind potatoes and bread, with around 490 million pints poured down the drain every year, worth £270, the potential for impact is significant.

In the UK, over half of food waste comes from households – so reducing this would be a win for our wallets as well as our precious climate. 8 to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions are associated with food lost or wasted from farm to fork. What is more, wasting less food would ease pressure on land, supporting biodiversity and thriving natural ecosystems. 

It's always fashionable to bash the supermarkets. But in fact, food waste from the grocery retail sector only contributes 2-3% of the UK total. These businesses, trapped in brutal price wars, are machines of efficiency. They know that wasting food means wasting money, so it has long been driven out. Some food was being binned but the explosion in food banks and cookery clubs and other ways of redistributing surplus food to those in need has seen to that. 

However – the retailers do have a critical role in influencing food waste across the supply chain, including from their customers. We won’t cut food waste from homes without action from these businesses. They shape the system that hinders reductions in food waste at a household level. 

We’ve already seen positive changes made by retailers: confusing ‘display until’ dates removed, action pledged on removing ‘best before’ dates from fresh fruit and vegetables, changes in promotional strategies from some supermarkets so you don’t have to buy multiple items to take advantage of offers, to name a few. At WRAP, we are pressing for all loose fruit and veg to be sold without those annoying plastic wrappers and confusing date-labels. Let people buy the number of apples they want at the same price. And don’t confuse people with dates – after all, stored correctly (in the fridge!), apples last for months. 

We need more of these changes to be implemented by businesses: from supermarket pricing to fridge design, from the way in which food is packaged to how food waste is collected from our homes. We also need a supportive policy framework for this transition, working in tandem with a flexible and faster voluntary approach. 

Everyone involved in food’s journey needs to be asking themselves: am I doing all I can to help householders waste less food?

At WRAP we aim to help businesses collaborate with others – like we do via the Courtauld Commitment 2030 which brings companies together to halve food waste by 2030 - to drive systemic change. But we need greater commitment, fast.