The Cottage Smallholder

stumbling self sufficiency in a small space

Supermarkets and the question of throwing away good food

Photo: Suoermarket bill

Photo: Suoermarket bill

Sunday was my bi-weekly shop with my mum. This is usually hugely enjoyable. We have a light lunch and tootle over for the last hour of Waitrose Sunday shopping. This trip has all the drama and pace of a decent documentary. Will we make it out of the store before the lights dim?

We always flop into the car with minutes to spare. Meanwhile cars are racing in for the final five minutes. Are they just getting that one vital ingredient or doing the weekly shop in almost empty aisles? This Sunday our cashier remarked that they are still asked to sit by their cash tills for an extra half hour to accommodate the shoppers that are shopping after four when the store is ‘closed’.  I was shocked that the late comers could be so selfish and thoughtless. Everyone on the staff has to wait and welcome them.

Last year I met an electrician on a building site. His wife works for Waitrose. I discovered quite a few good things about this store. They start to mark down food within three days of expiry, Tesco marks down within one day.  In the old days (Christmas 2006) you could order a Christmas turkey at Waitrose without a deposit. So loads of people ordered turkeys and didn’t collect them. Then they whistled into the shop and bought one of the knocked down turkeys five minutes before the close of business on Christmas Eve. Two years ago, Waitrose in Newmarket fought back and gave their staff these unclaimed turkeys. They were not put on the shelves for the general public. Tiny paint smeared hands clapped with glee. I’m up for a bargain but not a scam.

We have three supermarkets in Newmarket: Neto, Tesco and Waitrose. The staff in each look (in the same order) unhappy, not happy and happy. If all goes belly up for Danny he wants to work in Waitrose. I agree. But Waitrose for shoppers is much more expensive than the rest. Even with the staff discounts I often see the Waitrose staff shopping in Tesco. Most must be on the minimum wage and on very tight budgets.

All of the supermarkets have skips that they fill with food past the sell-by date.  A small Tesco Metro can easily fill a skip a day This can be very different  from the consume-by date which can be a couple of days later.  This is food that has been offered hugely discounted maybe minutes before. Why not give the staff, homeless and any one needy access to those skips that are filled every night and sent to landfill. Landfill sites are filling up around here but even if they were empty it’s crazy to trash good food. I’m sure that everyone, including me, would take a chance on the remote possibility of food poisoning.

Years ago (1979) when I was making and selling toys in Covent Garden Market, London, I met someone who belonged to a large alternative community in Teddington. A deep throat in the local M&S would ring them when there was something good in the skips. Perhaps there are deep throats in our local supermarkets that still do the same. I do hope so. I hate the idea of good food being trashed when so many families in our community are struggling. It’s not just a credit crunch thing. There are loads of people in the UK who have struggled for years. Loading food into skips has happened for at least 30 years. Suddenly, we’re all aware that landfills are getting a bit full..

How about ten minutes before closing time, lay the food outside the back door? People can take the food for free, without sifting through a skip. Most of these people can’t even afford the ’value’ products so the supermarkets wouldn’t be losing custom.

I’d hail the people who ate this food as heroes as they are stopping good food being poured into landfill.

I‘d prefer to shop at a supermarket that implemented this sort of programme.. I’d be happy to pay 10% more for my food if I knew that people in need were being looked after.

And suerly, that’s what it’s all about.

  Leave a reply


  1. Not long ago T.V reporter Johnathan Maitland took up a crusade on this very subject.He joined a group of the “Freegans” and went on several late-night sorties “liberating” food that supermarkets had binned at closing time.
    Some of the stuff they got (practically everything from bin-bags full of bread, dented tins, fruit and veg) was still in perfect condition and some items were several days before the sell-by dates. A lot of the bins were paddlocked, and they didn’t break into those,just took from the open ones, even so, Jonathan explained that they had to “keep an eye” out for the law, as technically they were thieving and would be charged with such if they were caught.
    Whilst on this subject, he also did a follow-up article on use-by dates, even going as far to eat food upto a fortnight over it! – result, he was perfectly ok, and came to the conclusion that sell and use by dates are purely a way of making “gullible” people throw away good food so that they have to go out and buy more.
    these dates are good for business!
    The only problem with laying food outside it will attract creature scavengers as well as human, seaglls especially don’t need inviting twice!

  2. I’m on a tight budget but I’m sure there are others who are struggling more than I am. Some of the tales I have just read in comments on this post make me so mad and we do just have a few people to blame for this state of affairs. I’m sure it is not a coincidence that the changes in legislation which mean all the out of date food goes to landfill probably started with the no win, no fee compensation culture. For years and years before foot and mouth pigs were always fed with food scraps from schools and hotels without a problem, which leads me to wonder just what is in our food now which might have caused foot and mouth and is it therefore safe for us to eat? The idea of deliberately spoiling perfectly edible food and/or padlocking bins just seems morally wrong to me. Those of us who eat from the condemned food counter in our local supermarkets tend only to buy what we need. Surely those who need to eat from the supermarket bins are going to do likewise as they are unlikely to have storage facilities. Perhaps it is time for the distribution of these foods to be formalised to ensure that waste is reduced to a minimum. At my brother’s local Aldi they used to mark the bread down towards the end of the day. They no longer do it as the manager told my brother that shoppers were waiting for the marking down instead of buying it full priced earlier in the day. Now the unsold bread presumably gets sent to the landfill. How sad a reflection of our society it all is that the haves so resent giving just a little food to the have nots.

  3. I’ve never shopped at Waitrose because our nearest branch is 30 miles away! We live in the middle of a circle of supermarkets (Tesco, Sainsbugs, Asda, Lidl and Morrissons) all about 10 miles in various directions.

    Wasting food is criminal.

  4. you now what, most supermarkets used to give food away to anyone that would take it. not to be kind I’m sure, more to save money on the cost of having it taken away. but after some people and can you believe it homeless charity’s actually sued a supermarket, (I think it was tesco), they stopped doing it. so now they have all stopped for fear of being sued.
    what is wrong with this world…………..

    great blog btw, I read everyday.

  5. kate (uk)

    My daughter always gives the M&S food shop skip the once over when she is home.We did end up with an awful lot of custard and cheese scones the first time she did it, now she is more selective.
    She tells me the skips in London are usually padlocked and those that aren’t get picked over fast- knowledge gained from experience.
    The amount of good food being wasted is criminal.

  6. Hello, I’ve followed your blog for some time.

    I shop at Waitrose for reasons such as how they (claim to) treat their staff and suppliers, it was once by far the nearest supermarket to where I then lived…and I don’t use Tesco – unless there is no choice – because of how the company behaves with regards to planning, taking over local stores, suppliers…So I may pay a little more for my food, but I’m doing so to support what I think is better practice by Waitrose (but I’m not blind to where and when they do things wrong).

    Out of date food used to be given to charities for the homeless, but that was made illegal. So has using it for pig swill (the last foot-and-mouth epidemic was blaimed on pig swill from human food, but I suspect it that was just a cover). Deep discounting is sometimes done within the last hour (a topic discussed on Radio 4’s iPM), but I have never spotted any pattern even within a particular shop whether they generally deeply discount goods about to time expire or are prepared to skip goods. Anaerobic digestion (posh type of composting, also generates electricity/heat) is a way of dealing with this food, albeit with a fair bit of labour involved – a storyline in “The Archers” not long ago – but that has hardly started in this country.

    Of course most items are good even two or three days past their sell-by dates.

  7. We live off a large square in London where every night at 7pm there are soup kitchens. This consists of several charities that turn up with food and sometimes rails of clothes for the homeless. Over the years we have noticed a big change in the sort of people that turn up.

    Over time you get to know faces and we see the same faces wait for the kitchens to turn up of later years we have noticed lots of new people turn up who don’t look homeless and are greedy and take as much as they can of the free pre packed sandwiches and salads. This has caused terrible fights and the atmosphere now is always tense. Which makes me worry that the single homeless person stays away.

    The other downside of all this is that when you walk or drive around the square at 8pm you would not believe the rubbish strewn everywhere, empty sandwich containers and plastic cups just thrown. This has to be cleared up every night but of course at a cost. The other downside of this rubbish is of course the rats which there are many.

    I agree with you that it would be nice for supermarkets to make their out of date food available but unfortuantely I don’t think human nature can take it for what it is anymore. Logic of taking just what you need with out complaining just doesn’t happen anymore. There will always be a group of people who will milk it for all they can.

  8. In the autumn I went round all my local supermarkets asking if I could take the out of date produce and/or bread to feed the pigs and chickens. They all said no, even when I offered to pay.

    My local independent greengrocer said yes, and they go out of their way to make sure I get as much as possible. Sometimes, they even chuck in fresh items. And a local (again independent) baker gives me the stale bread.

    Waste isn’t the word: even if they can’t give it for human consumption, why don’t they work with the local council to compost it all for gardens, parks and allotments?

  9. I entirely agree with Amanda its all about health and safety and the world gone mad on getting a free buck in the law courts. ‘My daughter ate a fish finger 25 years ago that the corner of the box was slightly dented and now she’s got partial loss of hearing so I’m sueing Findus for 6 million pounds!’
    I think if the food ( which it should) couldn’t be given to humans, I really don’t see why it can’t be ( like the old days) be sold cheap to farmers for livestock, years ago when i worked in kitchens all the big hotels and even my college had ‘pig swill bins’ for left overs and old food etc, at least if we couldn’t benefit from the waste at least our animals would be fed a bit more healthy with food that didn’t contain chemicals in pellet form out of sacks.
    A friend of mine husband worked for a distribution centre for M&S and they had a strict policy of instant dismissal for any staff found to be taking out of date or damaged food items that had been skipped, he used to be seething at the amount of perfectly good stock, sometimes extremely expensive items that were just thrown because the packaging was dented not even out of date or contaminated.
    In this world of hunger/excess it seems so….. negligent.

  10. I too suspect that if food was available for free at set times, the wide-boys of the world would find a way of making money out of it. I prefer KarenO’s Co-op.

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