Tesco, the UK’s biggest supermarket chain, says it’s giving away its unsold food to the hungry

Tesco to the rescue?
Tesco to the rescue?
Image: Reuters/Luke MacGregor
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British grocery giant Tesco is running a trial to give away all of its edible food waste to charities, including homeless hostels. The move follows news that France will ban all supermarkets from destroying food that could be eaten.

When announcing its plan, Tesco revealed that it wasted 55,400 tonnes (61,070 short tons) of food over the past year. It said about 30,000 tonnes of it was still edible.

Supermarkets, wholesalers, and others in the food business have long been criticized for the mountains of food waste that they generate. In the UK, this has led to a movement known as “skipping”, in which people scavenge for food in supermarket dumpsters that’s edible but deemed unwanted. There is even a thriving café culture using ”skipped” food.

Historically, though, supermakets have reacted warily to attempts to “rescue” food from their trash, often fearing liability issues. Sometimes, they have gone as far as destroying otherwise edible food with bleach or other chemicals.

A recent turning point came with a change to the law in France, banning supermarkets from throwing away food that could otherwise be eaten.

Tesco’s plan, which is already underway in Ireland, involves a partnership with the charity FareShare—store managers can use an app called FoodCloud that links them to local charities.

But the supply of excess food could overwhelm the demand for it. Food is discarded on a much larger scale than many charities can absorb, according to Sam Joseph, co-founder of The Real Junk Food project, which campaigns for a reduction of waste at the source, rather than a strategy that relies on redistribution alone.

Roughly speaking, if all supermarkets in Britain discarded edible food at the same rate as Tesco, which controls around 30% of the country’s grocery market, it implies some 100,000 tonnes of annual food waste that could be avoided in the UK alone. Globally, around one third of all food produced is wasted, according to the UN.

Jilly Stephens, executive director of New York food rescue charity City Harvest, tells Quartz that the heart of the problem is “the dichotomy of so much food being wasted while so many people go hungry.” But rising interest in the issue is encouraging—“the good thing is that’s it’s being talked about,” she says.