As we stock up on festive fayre, our cupboards bulging at the seams, indulging on treats to celebrate the season, our excesses undoubtedly peak at this time of year, but how much are we eating and how much actually ends up in the bin? More importantly, what is the cost on our pockets and to the environment?

The University of Sunderland’s Associate Professor in Cultural Management, Dr Derek Watson, whose research analyses food safety cultural compliance, writes about the huge problem of festive food waste and how we can look to change our shopping behaviours for the sake of our planet.

There is overwhelming evidence to reaffirm that our conditioned behaviour at Christmas is one of over stocking our freezers and pantries, and whilst we may not be travelling afar, we like to fuel up our vehicles and indulge.

The consequences often see our refuse bins busting with waste. The sad reality is that despite the public agreeing that food waste is a major concern due negative economic, environmental, and social impacts. This Christmas, like many others, will witness approximately two million UK turkeys and 74m mince pies discarded and this is just the tip of the UK food waste iceberg.

From the ‘farm to fork’ supply chain, there is an estimated 13.1 metric tonnes of annual UK food waste, producing the greenhouse gas emissions of 27 metric tonnes of CO2. Furthermore the ‘avoidable’ food and drink waste is costing households approximately £500 per year, equating nationally to just under £14bn. Morally, this cannot continue when globally there are over 820m cases of malnutrition. To add further impetus to factor out the supply chain food wastage, approximately 0.9 million hectares of land and 306 cubic meters of water, which equates to three times the size of Lake Geneva, are needed in producing the 1.3bn tonnes of global food waste each year.

UK wastage within primary production, namely pre-harvest (animal farming, agriculture & fisheries) and post-harvest (product handling and storage) is susceptible to severe weather, infestations, and poor storage. However, there is clearly a culture in which producers overplant to mitigate against extreme weather and changes in market price all too often resulting in 30% waste due to overcapacity, non-compliance to quality standards due to work pressures, failing to comply with supermarket aesthetic standards and harvesting is no longer economically viable. Additional agitators in reducing waste is the global pandemic and Brexit resulting in supply chain bottle necks in transportation hubs and a significant workforce sector shrinkage.

Key challenges in manufacturing and processing in the food and drink market equally face complex processes in the pursuit of food safety, from cutting to cooking. Such processes are linked to breaches in areas such as product rotation, sterilisation, refrigeration and are continually at war with the threat of bacterial contamination, converting into approximately 2.4 million cases of food-borne illness every year.

Manufacturers must also operate under highly regulated and often conflicting compliance protocols imposed by retailers resulting in inefficient production runs and inventory management.

The impact of Covid-19 and Brexit is also evidenced in the complex time-sensitive distribution of food and drink products, in terms of proficient manufacturing roles and HGV drivers often leading to delays in delivery, thus many products are degraded and/or rejected.

It is also a common practice to outsource product distribution and complications are associated with non-compliance of chilling procedures, product damage during loading, transportation and offloading which not only affect the product but the packaging, often resulting in ‘unfit-for-sale’ rejections and contractual manufacturer penalty clauses.

The volume of household food waste is very much prevalent within socio-democratic variables namely age, race, level of education, employment positioning and family size. Evidence shows that the older we are, the more conservative we become, especially those over 65.

Common failings which correlate to waste are insufficient time or an inability to cook from scratch. Our culture of consumerism is reflected in 60% of supermarket purchases taking place on impulse, consumers taking short-term advantage of bulk food discounts with little thought or planning, resulting in 48% of food shopping being discarded due to exceeding ‘suggested’ sell by dates, further compounded in limited adequate storage and space.

For instance, the majority of our refrigerators are programmes at 7°C or above, rather than at a more suitable temperature of 4°C. The top three food groups wasted are vegetables, fruit, and drinks. When it comes to consumption, consumer ‘eyes are very much larger than their actual appetites’ as evidenced by food left on our plates equating to 31% while the problem is often hidden in refuse sacks for collection.

The food and drink supply chain need to change their habits, especially consumers in driving the change from ‘fork to farm’. However, to change our cultural habits is difficult in moving from conscious food waste reduction behaviour to a conditioned automated reduction to food waste through a process of habituation, as evidenced in our post-Christmas diet promises in pursuit of that ideal summer beach body.

However, below are a list of catalysts to help the much-needed cultural change process and readers are encouraged to adopt in 2022 and beyond:

  1. Pre-plan shopping list and ‘stick to it.’
  2. Try e-shopping but avoid impulse of ‘we must have that’ feeling.
  3. Micro shops to work within sell by dates and avoid food hording.
  4. Always read food storage instruction they are a guidance not a rule.
  5. Audit your fridge / freezer via the FIFO method: “first in, first out.”
  6. Smaller servings, to help you may need to buy smaller plates.
  7. Recycle food not eaten, especially seeds and skins.
  8. Embrace food preservation techniques and taste the difference.
  9. Avoid aesthetically pleasing options.
  10. Start today and learn to cook from scratch and see the immediate benefits.