This article is part of our special report Products for a greener planet.
SPECIAL REPORT / The European Commission wants to help consumers cut food waste by making 'best before' and 'use by' dates clearer on the packaging. But measures to green up our diets will not stop here, with policymakers' attention turning to the entire food chain.
With almost 80 million European citizens living beneath the poverty line and 16 million depending on food aid, the European Parliament has launched a crusade against food waste.
Up to 50% of edible and healthy food is wasted in EU households, supermarkets, restaurants and along the food supply chain each year, the Parliament said, calling for urgent measures to address the issue.
In a resolution adopted in January, legislators called on the European Commission to halve food waste by 2025, by adopting a comprehensive range of measures.
"We expect nothing less than a convincing EU strategy that will steer all 27 member states to systematically tackle the issue," said Salvatore Caronna, a socialist MEP from Italy who drafted the Parliament resolution on food waste.
Consumer education starts at school
In Parliament, Anna Maria Corazza Bildt, a Swedish MEP from the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), is spearheading a grass-roots campaign to educate consumers about food waste, starting with school children.
The wife of Foreign Minister Carl Bildt explained that children can be taught to understand the value of food by using their senses – touch, look and smell – instead of just throwing away.
At home, simple steps can be taken to avoid wasting food, Corazza Bildt told EURACTIV in an interview. "It's about looking at your temperature in your refrigerator at home or taking one small portion twice instead of a big portion".
At the restaurant, Corazza Bildt is encouraging clients to take home the food they don't eat and pack them in a "doggy bag". "It shouldn't be embarrassing to take it home like they do in the United States," she told EURACTIV. "Just bring it home".
Cutting waste is also about "shopping smart" at the supermarket, Corazza Bildt continued. "A lot of people are throwing away food based on 'best before' dates" without understanding that the product is still good to eat, she remarked.
'Best before' and 'use by' dates
The Parliament's calls have found a favourable echo in Brussels, with the European Commission looking at clearer labelling rules for consumers.
Chantal Bruetschy, head of unit for innovation and sustainability at the Commission's health and consumer department (DG Sanco), said clearer labels would avoid edible food from being dumped, "without compromising food safety".
Speaking at a EURACTIV stakeholder workshop on food waste, she said many consumers can throw away food because they feel it is no longer safe to eat.
"On the consumer side, labelling is often misinterpreted due to the lack of understanding on the distinction between the 'best before' date (quality criteria) and the 'use by' date (safety issue)," Bruetschy told EURACTIV in emailed comments sent after the May 30 workshop.
"The Commission will clarify this in close cooperation with member states," she continued, saying this will be done via a "common explanation" distributed to member states, consumer organisations, retailers, food operators and food banks.
Bruetshcy cautioned, however, about re-writing EU food labelling laws altogether, saying there is "no need to re–open the legislation on 'food information for consumers'," which was adopted in 2011 after many years of negotiation.
On the retail side, she said tax exemptions might also encourage supermarkets to organise donations to food charities instead of discarding it. A milestone of halving food waste by 2030 will be spelt our in a communication due later in 2013, she added.
Greening the food supply chain
EU action on greening the food sector won't stop at waste and should soon be extended to address the entire supply chain – from farm to fork.
According to the European Commission, the food and drink sector contributes to some 23% of global resource use, 18% of greenhouse gas emissions and 31% of acidifying emissions.
In September last year, the EU executive presented its roadmap to a resource efficient Europe, setting out a 2050 vision for a leaner economy that consumes fewer natural resources. It identified the food chain as one of the areas where further action is needed to reach the EU's broader sustainability goals.
“By 2020, incentives to healthier and more sustainable food production and consumption will be widespread and will have driven a 20% reduction in the food chain's resource inputs," the vision document stated.
A report by the European Commission’s Committee on Agricultural Research, published in February 2011, had already made that point, calling for "a radical change in food consumption and production" to meet the resource scarcity challenge and make the European agro-food system more resilient to potential supply crises.
"The agro-food sector should now consider that there is an opportunity to positively address the challenge and be the first to win the world market for sustainably producing healthy food in a world of scarcities and uncertainty,” the report said.
These warnings have not gone unnoticed among food and drinks companies.
In recent years, the concept of environmental footprinting has become a selling argument for the industry, with most attention focusing on carbon dioxide emissions and food miles – or the number of kilometers food travels before it lands on consumers' plate.
Environmental activists at WWF, the global conservation organisation, have jumped at the opportunity to campaign for local production and organic food.
"Choosing in-season food grown locally can be a significant step to minimising the environmental impact of our diet," the WWF told EURACTIV.
At EU level, the European Commission is even considering to adopt a carbon dioxide labelling scheme for commercial products that could include a grading system for food and other products similar to the well-known energy consumption labels seen on fridges and washing-machines.
Measuring environmental impact
However, both regulators and environmental activists are keen to note that the environmental impact of the food industry is broader than just how far food travels.
"The majority of GHG from food does not come from food miles, it comes from how food is grown, what is used in the soil and to feed the livestock," the WWF said. "There are also the impacts of how it is stored, used and what happens to the waste."
Agro-food companies have listened to those concerns and have started developing their own initiatives to clean up their environmental act. Recently, they developed a harmonised assessment methodology to measure environmental impacts such as water usage or carbon dioxide emissions.
FoodDrinkEurope, an industry group, put together a sustainability vision for 2030, which lists action in three areas: 1) sustainable sourcing, 2) resource efficiency and 3) sustainable consumption, focusing on the consumer side.
"Now this good work has to be taken to the next step, and implemented in real actions on the ground that ensures consumers are given accurate information about the sustainability of the choices they make," said Janez Poto?nik, EU environment commissioner.
"It is in the direct interest of the food sector so that those that really invest resources in improving their impacts are rewarded for their efforts; that they are not dismissed as 'green washing'," Poto?nik added.
The Commission is expected to follow up on the resource-efficiency roadmap later in 2013 with a Communication on Sustainable Food.
Environmental activists, however, don't want the EU's efforts to stop there, and have started exploring the link between people's dietary choices, the environment, and public health.
WWF has compiled information on dietary patterns in Spain, France and Sweden. Unsurprisingly, red meat and highly processed pre-packaged food fared worst on both environmental and health grounds.
"Intake of red meat and high-calorie processed foods has increased. These trends have negative consequences for public health and the climate impact of national diets," the WWF report said.
Diet-related health issues cited in the report include obesity, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes (type II) and cancers.
A win-win solution for government healthcare budgets and the planet, activists argue, would be to adopt a healthier and greener diet based on the following principles:
- eat more plants;
- reduce food waste;
- eat less meat;
- cut down on highly processed food; and
- buy certified sustainable food.
"If adopted, such a diet has not only the potential to improve the health of European citizens but the capacity to provide a 25% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the pilot countries food supply chains by 2020," the WWF said.
Whether consumers will buy it remains to be seen.