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.

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  1. The obvious solution to the horders is for supermarkets to limit people to x amount per trolley, the way they do with booze at Christmas e.g. just 5 reduced items per customer. At least that spread the savings. Admittedly, I have, in the past, filled up my trolley with reduced goods but, in my defence, being a Cardi, nothing was wasted!

  2. magic cochin

    I agree with casalba’s comment above. We expect to be able to get what we want when we want – Foodie mags, TV cook shows and recipe books by the dozen, all encourage this. The supermarket advertising creates then feeds this false ‘need’ and this results in waste on a huge scale (both in the shops and in consumers’ kitchens).

    I think the current economic crisis is an inevitable crash after surfing on such a huge wave of borrowing and debt. Maybe now a few more people will really start to think about what they really need to buy and feel they can’t afford to waste it. I’m not sure whether the supermarkets will change their ways – it will be interesting to see whether some things disappear from the shelves.

  3. Interesting post with interesting comments too. Can’t help thinking that we are all to blame for this one.

    As consumers, we wanted a wide variety of cheap food and lots of it. We demanded and the suppliers supplied. We got fatter as a nation and the suppliers got richer. They got richer still by cutting corners which risked our health.

    We turned our backs on the small specialist shops who ran out of perishable goods on a Saturday afternoon and ran to the 24 hour find-anything-anytime cheaper chain stores.

    It serves us right!

  4. Jo @ LittleFfarm Dairy

    Jo –

    ref getting veggies etc from supermarkets to feed your pigs. Unfortunately it’s now illegal for supermarkets to give away anything destined for waste if you are intending to feed it to your pigs, as there is (apparently) the potential that said veggies could have been cross-contaminated by meat products which are also sold under the same roof (it doesn’t seem to make any difference that pigs – like us – are omnivores…..).

    The greengrocer & baker however, are allowed to sell/give you their wste products, as they don’t (in theory) sell meat products alongside these other goods.

    The ham sandwich incident relates to swine fever, not FMD. I must admit that reading Steve’s account the sandwich theory does sound pretty far-fetched. And how do they know? Did the farmer see the pig eating the sandwich, or did it come up during post mortem, in which case you have to consider whether there would be any remaining evidence of said sandwich by the time the disease manifesteed itself; surely it would have been completely digested? Hmmmm……

    Anyway, back to the debate!

    Considering the thorny question about condemned supermarket food, it is a difficult issue. Like the vast majority here I too abhor waste; & would applaud any manner in which it could be avoided.

    Giving it away to the needy at the end of the day is an option, however sadly these days some aspects of our society seem to have degenerated into entirely self-centred, slovenly gluttons; happy to live their lives at the expense of hard-working, honest others.

    These low-lifes are the people who could afford to buy the food – at full price – but would take it anyway without a thought for those who truly needed it, pushing the less fortunate individuals aside. And they’d take far more than they needed, & end up thoughtlessly discarding it (& the packaging), regardless.

    Or as Linda pointed out, there are those who would muscle in & take what they could, to make a profit out of it – probably at the expense of those to whom it was offered in the first place.

    And then there’s the cruel irony that everyone is so frightened of our compensation culture that by giving this food away to specific organisations such as orphanages, old peoples’ homes etc, there’s the concern that if someone was to fall ill, the donor of the food could be sued.

    Perhaps the only answer is to ban the condemend food counters altogether (sorry, Fiona!) & for the Government to pay a token price for the goods – which after all are still ‘within date’, after which the supermarkets could be subcontracted to distribute them specifically to registered charities or organisations such as homeless shelters etc.

    The same goes for all that perfectly good but misshapen fruit & veg which is sadly, still disregarded by supermarkets; that too, could be bought for hospital catering or whatever, rather than rotting away in heaps at the side of fields – another disgraceful waste.

    Perhaps we should also take a tip from Latvia? These days it seems we know the price of everything but the value of nothing; maybe if supermarkets regularly ran out of necessary staples people would learn to be more careful with what they have, in case the supply dried up.

    Sadly however, I suspect that all that would happen these days, is that rather than learning from it people would complain bitterly; & then when the shop was restocked, buy more than their fair share & hoard it, causing more waste as the excess would have to be thrown away anyway.

    It seems we can’t win….consumerism has gone barmy & now there’s a credit crunch, greed just has a different focus.

  5. Me again! Reading through this lot made me remember something.

    I used to work for a big fancy department store chain here in OZ, we would buy in these fab cakes & sell them by the slice, after 3-4 days what wasnt sold got binned.

    My dept manager got into trouble for letting me take home half a lemon tart. They told her she had to bin everything from then on.

    Security did bag checks as we left through the staff entrance so that, was that.

  6. Steve,

    I’m a physical scientist by training, so I won’t know all the details of biology etc.

    I’m with Pamela on one point – Mad cows were made mad essentially by feeding them sheep – some of which had scrapie. Herbivore being fed animal meat – surprise, surprise, the scrapie jumped species; cows have 7 stomachs for the agent to manage to get through.

    I’m not so sure I’m with you regarding the idea that the diseases are deliberately released (well, myxi… apart) to cull the national herd of whatever animal. That is not to say that I believe things like the “ham sandwich” being the cause (I think I made that clear last time).

    I would have thought that MAFF or its successors were perfectly able to cull the national herd at will by by implimentation of EU laws, wildly gilded by the UK government. Though I’m never quite sure whether they do so for the benefit of huge agro-businesses, or to literally stop all production permanantly.

  7. I thought the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak was because a farmer was feeding his pigs swill which contained meat. Never heard the story of a ham sandwich before!

  8. Steve, I like where you are coming from on this one and I do feel we are expected to accept some theories that are at best tenuous and in most cases bizarre flights of fantasy. However, I would challenge the idea of comparing animals grazing in fields fertilized with animal waste to feeding them on dead animals. In theory the biological waste from a grazing animal should only contain digested grass, shouldn’t it? I’m no scientist – although I could have written this post in 3 other languages – but I’m with you on the control of food supplies. I was reading a post on a blog I had clicked on via City Mouse, Country House (which Fiona links to) and they have discovered that the American Gov has recently passed laws which basically ban stockpiling of food and actually allow them to comandeer any food and the means of producing food if they should require it. As she said, just what does the American Gov know that they are not telling and is the UK Gov planning something similar?

  9. Well Fiona you did ask for it!! if as before, it is too political (or long!) please delete!

    >>the last outbreak was caused by a ham sandwich

    Yes course it was! 🙂 so they say!
    My view is that the Government try to control the amount of produce that British farmers produce,they would prefer it if it was a steady supply all year around, trouble is, it isn’t, most of british farming is seasonal. This leads to peaks and troughs in supply. when things are in season demand for that product is usually greater,also, farmers have a nasty habit of producing goods when it’s also cheaper to import the stuff.
    Dieseses are a very handy tool to control both supply and demand, if pork products are popular and mountains of other meat products are starting to build, what better way to shift it than by taking pork out of the food chain for a while! Likewise, we have Scrapie for sheep products, salmonella for eggs, swine fever for pork, and now bird flu for poultry.
    Good old foot and mouth is reserved for real emergencys! as that literally stops the production of nearly all british meat products, as it affects the cloven hooved,sheep,pigs,goats,cattle,venison etc.
    It is also my view that they tried to “manufacture” a “stop” diesease soley for beef products, but they were very nearly caught out when it jumped the “species barrier” and started infecting humans. What did they apportion the blame to? – feeding animal products back to the animals in the feed! – Cobblers! 75-80% of grazing land is fertilised each year with animal waste,the cattle eat the grass, animal waste by-products are still being fed back to animals!
    During the war years, people were encouraged to keep and breed rabbits, so after the war there was an abundance of rabbit meat, not good for British farmers! enter “Myxy” and as in my recent quote, the government refused to legislate about deliberately spreading it, and by 1955, 95% of uk rabbits had conveniently been removed from the food chain.
    Well i’m not in any way a conspiricist,so i’d better get off my soap-box, it just bugs me when they try to feed me crap like the ham-sandwich theory and expect me to swallow it!
    Just think about it for two mins,at the time of the uk outbreak, there were no active outbreaks on the continent, or else the Gov’ would have implemented a ban on the import of pig products – they didn’t. Even if an “infected” carcase had managed to evade the strict slaughter and hygene controls abroad, it also managed to evade our here also.As the “ham” was in a sandwich it is safe to assume that it was probably either roasted or boiled, either process would have killed the infection.
    The “still” infected ham then just happened to find itself distributed not to a store in the heart of any big cities, London,Birmingham,Bristol,etc, but to a rural store, where it was incredibly purchased not for eating in either pea n ham soup or salad, but for making a packed lunch for a “Rambler”. This rambler,discovered that he couldn’t eat all the sandwiches, so he threw one away, not in a bin, not in a field of cattle, not in a field of sheep,not in a hedgerow or simply by the roadside, – he just happened to be passing a pig farm and he threw it there, pig eats it gets infected, starts epidemic! – yeah right! i’d rather have bet a pound on a donkey winning the national.

    This is the product of a fertile mind and is simply my own take on things,you are directed to make up your own minds on any points raised here!

  10. Sam Winter

    At the canteen in work they put out the muffins that haven’t sold that day at 3.00pm for free. This got round and they started to get people ‘hanging round’ the canteen as the ladies were trying to cash up and clean near 3pm.
    Then people stopped buying muffins and the queues got bigger at

    So they cut right back on muffins and all the muffin eaters started to moan about not getting their afternoon treat!
    You really cannot win 🙂

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