EU: ‘Recovering food, places and people’

MARIELLA RADAELLI and JON VAN HOUSEN

Our mothers often told us to finish our meal, reminding us that there are people less fortunate who don’t have enough to eat. Europe is trying to take that admonishment to an institutional level by establishing a system that can bring surplus food to those who need it.

About a third of all food produced globally is wasted, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. In the EU alone, some 88 million tons of food valued at 143 billion euros is wasted annually, according to a study by Fusions, a project funded by the European Commission that is researching how to reduce food waste and build a framework on policy for EU members.

“The most recent estimates on European food waste show households, food services and the retail sector are responsible for 70 percent, with production and processing contributing the remaining 30 percent,” says Aikaterini Apostola of the EU Commission’s Directorate General for Health and Food Safety.
Italian news: Europe food waste
The carbon needed to produce all the food wasted would rank No. 3 globally, following only the U.S. and China.

But there are signs that Europe is slowly moving from a woefully wasteful region into a one that can better share. As a start, the EU Commission’s Directorate General for Health and Food Safety is defining a common way to measure food waste consistently in cooperation with member states and stakeholders.

“Since 2012, the commission has worked with all actors to identify where food waste occurs in the food chain,” says Aikaterini. “This has laid the foundation for the elaboration of an integrated action plan to tackle food waste, presented as part of the circular economy package.”

The EU is working to meet Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) it adopted in September 2015, including halving per capita food waste at the retail and consumer level by 2030, and reducing food losses along production and supply chains.

But can that be done?

“The target is possible, but for sure difficult, for at least two reasons,” says Cesare Varallo, a food lawyer in Turin, Italy.

“First of all there is no common agreed quantification of the food waste phenomenon: the first pillar of the EU policy needs to be a common EU methodology. We have to start from fixed data to establish a reduction target,” he says. Second, Varallo says “the EU alone has limited competence — the goal has to be achieved through cooperation with stakeholders and member states, which will in the end be in charge of application and controls.”

The EU food safety commission has launched the EU Platform on Food Losses and Food Waste to help define measures needed to reach the SDG while facilitating inter-sector cooperation and sharing best practices. “Food waste prevention requires action at all levels (global, EU, national, regional and local) and engagement of all key players to build integrated programs,” Aikaterini says.

Raising awareness among consumers is a start. “Explain how to better preserve the food at home and clarify the distinction between expiration dates ("use by") and the dates of durability ("best before") on the package. The first is given on highly perishable foods, while the second is mainly indicating that the product keeps its characteristics until that date — afterward it might be less enjoyable, but almost never dangerous to human health,” says Varallo.

With enthusiastic support, Italy and France passed laws last year to promote recovery and donation of food surpluses.

“The most important success factor in these laws is food banks that are able to handle large quantities of food professionally with all the necessary hygiene and safety requirements because they partner with charities that serve vulnerable people,” says Patrick Alix, secretary general of the European Federation of Food Banks (FEBA) based in Bourg-la-Reine, France. The FEBA reaches out to 23 EU countries by bringing together 326 food banks that fight daily food loss and hunger. Some 6.1 million people were supported by FEBA food banks in 2016.

“Our organization is mainly reducing food waste by redistributing edible, surplus food to NGOs taking care of vulnerable populations,” says Alix. “We estimate than less 10 percent of the edible food currently wasted in primary production, retailing and food services is rescued.”

“Food donation is a matter of trust between corporate donors and recipient organizations that have the infrastructure and trained people to handle food regularly all over the year in the most efficient manner,” he says.

“It is not efficient to force food donors to give surplus products if there are no organizations capable of handling them properly. Food collection and redistribution requires solving many operational issues that cannot be imposed by law.”

One of the best chefs in the world, Massimo Bottura, is leading a social gastronomy movement to reduce food waste while helping feed Michelin-star meals to refugees and the homeless. His Refettorio Ambrosiano, a soup kitchen run by the Catholic Church’s Caritas Ambrosiana, serves meals to the homeless of Milan. Bottura is now promoting more community kitchens around Europe and in the US.

“Our projects want to bring dignity back to the table through promoting the values of art and beauty, encouraging solidarity within local communities and recovering food, places and people,” he says.

A version of this analysis first appeared in the Khaleej Times of Dubai.