I have just watched a television programme that made me feel genuinely panicky. I could actually feel my heart racing at certain points when the visual evidence combined with statistics shocked me to the marrow.
This programme was called ‘The Great British Waste Menu’ on BBC1 at 8.30pm. Four of the country’s top chef’s were challenged to produce a three course meal for 60 people out of unwanted, wasted food from any part of the food chain to highlight the amount of edible produce which is thrown away every day. If ever there was a programme made for The Wartime Housewife, this was it.
I’m going to startle you with some statistics. I must add that none of these figures are researched by me, they are all courtesy of the programme.
- One fifth of all food in the UK is thrown away
- 3,500 potatoes are wasted every minute either in raw or cooked form
- One million cattle are slaughtered in Britain every year and yet huge quantities are thown away or sold for dog meat because people only want the expensive cuts
- £1.4 billion worth of food is wasted at some point in the supply chain by supermarkets every year
- According to the charity ‘Fareshare’, four million people go hungry in the UK every day
- On one farm alone, 30,000 heads of lettuce were ploughed back into the field on ONE DAY because they didn’t meet the supermarket specification
One fifth of all food in the UK is thrown away. How can that fail to sicken any right minded person? The chefs not only visited farms, wholesalers and supermarkets, they also knocked on the doors of homes in South London and asked if there were any things that people were about to throw out. Many of the people they asked didn’t even know what was in their fridges and had let stuff go off because they had forgotten it was there, or refused to eat perfectly edible food because it was past its sell-by date.
Sell-by dates are there for the convenience of the supermarkets, for their stock rotation and their pathological fear of falling foul of the health and safety fascists. Sell-by dates, like so much recent political legislation, have successfully robbed individuals of their common sense and their ability to make reasonable, instinctive judgements about what they put in their gobs.
I used to work for one of the (more ethical) leading supermarkets and I asked the manager why such huge amounts of food were going into the waste bins every day. They are past their sell-by dates he told me and not fit for human consumption. “I’d eat it” I said, hopefully, but it was made very clear that if I so much as glanced sideways at a wholemeal seeded batch I would be sacked on the spot. I asked why the food could not be given to the homeless shelter. I was told that would be illegal. Wasting a skip-load of food every day should be illegal.
We, as consumers, are the biggest problem as far as the supermarkets are concerned. The public has become obsessed with visual perfection and alleged convenient uniformity at the expense of flavour. Egg farms throw thousands of eggs away every day because they are too small. Apparently, the British housewife cannot work out how to use a small egg and panics if confronted with a hefty courgette.
Millions of vegetables are thrown away for having tiny blemishes on their skins, potatoes wasted because they have sprouted slightly. Supermarkets demand that courgettes are between 17-21cm long or they will reject them. They also reject small strawberries (apparently the shoppers don’t want them) and those which cannot be sold at farmers markets are thrown away.
The chefs had an incredible haul of food salvaged for their menu. One baker was going to throw away a foot long topside of beef, fishermen handed over boxes of young sole, called ‘slip sole’, because British housewives can’t be bothered to cook them, Ideally, of course, we should be developing more sophisticated methods of fishing so that these young fish wouldn’t be caught in the first place. But how difficult is it to cook a fish on the bone (more tasty anyway) and eat it? Markets throw away binfuls of fruit and vegetables because they’ve fallen on the floor, gone a tiny bit soft or they simply can’t be bothered to take it home.
We have let this happen. We have become so lazy and senseless that we are treating the precious resource of food, that takes so much effort to produce, that nourishes our bodies, and of which there is plenty to go round, like so much garbage.
A TV programme last year showed a family of five who spent £400 a week on food and threw away a third of it. Part of this was because they weren’t great cooks and partly it was because they allowed their children to be fussy and dictate what they would or wouldn’t eat. They were effectively running a canteen and some days cooked four separate dishes at one meal. Utter, profligate madness.
I produce very little food waste – vegetable peelings, the very odd bit of cold meat that I have completely forgotten to cook in time. I scrape the mould off cheddar and bread (within reason), and any vegetables that get a little elderly are roasted or turned into soup. I don’t do massive shops, and I admit to using the supermarket more than I should because of time constraints. When there was a farm shop up the road, I rarely went to the supermarket except for cleaning stuff and dry goods.
However there is a farm shop on the other side of Harborough and I am going to go to it. In fact, time permitting, I am going to start scavenging. I am a terrific scavenger for everything else, so I’m going to start scavenging for food. I’ll let the excitement of this programme die down a bit, and then I shall set to. And I pledge here and now, that every time I successfully scavenge stuff, I will tell you what I’ve cooked with it. Maybe a new side bar or feature box is called for. I will consult an expert.
If ‘Great British Waste Menu’ is repeated on iPlayer, please, please watch it and make your families and friends watch it. And more importantly, look very hard at your fridges and larders and make a firm commitment to wasting less and save yourself some money. Plan your meals and your shopping, never go out without a list, investigate cheaper cuts of meat and ask your butcher for them. ‘Waste not, want not’ is as about as good a cliché as you will ever hear. We are entering a period of much needed austerity. Be prepared.