Surplus food must be a regulated resource

Written by: Paul Featherstone | Published:
Sugarich's Paul Featherstone

In the government’s Resources and Waste Strategy, the unnecessary disposal of food is a priority target in the aim to preserve natural materials, by reusing those already in the food chain.

This is a significant and positive initiative, as vast amounts of prime resource are just waiting to be tapped. For the want of some creative thinking and diligent scrutiny of material potential, a nutritional and economic advantage is literally being thrown away.

We’ve had some heartening progress, for example, the prioritisation of food distribution under a £15 million government funding scheme could add an extra 100,000 tonnes of food back into the food chain – that is the equivalent of 250 million edible meals per year.

Let’s not forget the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO) SDG 12.3 agenda for sustainable development, of which the UK has been a prime driver and supporter. Its primary aim is to reduce food waste globally by half by 2030 and provide us with a means to measure our global progress on managing food waste through the Global Food Loss Index.

Let’s not get carried away

As food reprocessors and animal feed producers, Sugarirch supports the principle that surplus food which is viable for recycling into nutritious animal feed, must first be scrutinised to identify any potential to divert same for human consumption.Under the Strategy, this is highlighted as a target objective: “more effectively redistribute food to those who need it most before it can go to waste”.

However, from the animal feed business standpoint, this rings a little of ‘glass half full/ half empty’.

On one hand, we could see the Strategy inspiring the recovery of more viable foodstuffs and being transformed into animal feed.This could really put legislators under more pressure when it comes to feed safety.

However, for us as surplus food re-processors and animal feed producers, it’s a tremendous potential for business growth. In theory, it will compel the food network in its entirety, from manufacturers to retailers, to push themselves to find more useful ways to manage their food surplus, and dare I say, waste.

I foresee a push and pull effect. While retail and food storage and distribution sectors are the biggest opportunities for food recycling progress, it all comes with an element of risk. Our business is very aware that swathes of the population such as, campaigners, commentators, householders and many more, think that if they channel all their food waste into animal feed, then they are making a positive difference but this is where they are wrong.

Defra sets out what materials can be used as animal feed, including what constitutes ‘permissable’ animal by-products such as dairy products and honey.Let’s not forget, that animal feed, derived from surplus foodstuffs, has been classified as a valuable food resource since 2015 by EU law. The European Commission sought to exclude all feed materials, including former foodstuffs, from the scope of the Waste Framework Directive, in an updated legal proposal on waste, (now amended to 2018/851).

This means it should never be confused with swill, which is food and catering waste that is prohibited from being used as animal feed. Tightly vetted and controlled surplus food that is safe to feed to animals is certainly not waste. The nutrients stay within the human food chain, convertible into eggs or milk for example, which then reverts to human consumption – i.e. we eat it eventually.

Enthusiasm vs the law

I’ve seen rather concerning lobbying bodies who champion the potentially uncontrolled valorisation of wholesale food waste into the food chain, including ABP (animal by-products).I am definitely inclined to discourage this approach until it is proven to have some mileage in a very tightly regulated, risk averse manner. As far as I’m concerned, and I think a great many colleagues in our sector would agree, widening the foodstuff net to include more ABP would require significant further investigation under the basis of the new strategy.

If we want a level playing field when it comes to food reuse, that’s going to be a challenge, certainly in the animal feed arena.We can’t just dump all household and public food wastes into the pot and call it consumable, even for animals.There are, however, some potential wins within the existing regulations that could be subject to zero risk derogations. We would be amenable to challenging the regulators regarding such former foodstuffs – why can’t those products be used if there’s no risk? However, the regulators would have to be open minded to our challenges.

Europe’s strategy has been to reduce waste along the entire food chain. Former foodstuffs processors like ourselves, convert losses from the food industry into a high-value ingredient for the feed industry, thereby keeping resources in the food chain. But as we talk about the necessity to observe the law, we are led to question what happens after Brexit. What will the law say then?

We need to be in a state of preparedness to react and particularly to adapt. Until we get more and better guidelines from government, we won’t know if any new legislation will be fit for purpose, or whether we will need to challenge it. It needs to be shaped appropriately for the sector to inform the ensuing years of strategy for food waste recovery. I’m prepared for the eventuality that as a professional in the feed sector, I’m going to have to step up and speak out if necessary to effect appropriate change while ensuring the feed/food chain is not put at risk.

Regarding surplus food being a valuable and reusable commodity, we should strive to achieve, as a matter of practice, clarity on differentiating what is reusable and what isn’t – from crop to consumer.When we understand across the board, how to identify value in our surplus food, with diligence and a duty of care, then our ambitions for reducing waste are more likely to succeed.

Paul Featherstone is procurement director at surplus food reprocessor Sugarich

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