Is the EU going far enough to tackle food waste?

For the first time in history, the EU is setting targets to reduce food waste.

The Commission initially proposed​ that Member States cut food waste by 10% in processing and manufacturing, and 30% jointly at retail and consumption levels, by 2030.

The Parliament has since upped the ante, voting for the Waste Framework Directive to instead aim for a 20% reduction in processing and manufacturing, and 40% across retail, restaurants, and households.

While these new targets are clearly more ambitious, is the proposed Waste Framework Directive going far enough?

Waste Framework Directive ambitious in principle only

Since the Waste Framework Directive marks the first time the EU is setting targets to reduce food waste, it is ambitious in principle.

This is the view of Katia Merten-Lentz, founder and partner of Food Law Science. But that doesn’t mean the Directive goes far enough, according to the food law expert: “In my humble opinion, it doesn’t.

“The proposal would only set national targets and even bind Member States to adopt other food waste prevention measures,” she told us, suggesting so much more could be done.

Why reduce food waste?

Cutting food waste makes sense for several reasons:

  • It’s better for the environment (food waste accounts for around 16% of total greenhouse gas emissions from the EU food system);
  • It makes financial sense (an estimated €132bn-worth of food is lost or wasted in the EU per year), and;
  • Cutting food waste could wipe out hunger, globally.

Food waste-related definitions could be updated, for example. Yet ‘waste’, ‘food waste’, and ‘by-product’ definitions remain unchanged. “This framework seems outdated and it is more an obstacle than a regulatory support to food business operators when it comes to innovative upcycling.”

Are the proposed targets ambitious enough?

As to the targets themselves, Merten-Lentz suggested they could be readjusted, including for food waste at the primary level.

“For instance, by 31 December 2025, the Commission should conduct an assessment on the appropriate levels for the setting of targets for the reduction of all primary production food waste, including mature food left unharvested or used on-farm.”

Others are also unconvinced the proposed targets will truly move the needle, given that the EU has committed to halving per capita food waste at retail and consumer levels by 2030.

According to the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), the Commission’s proposal ‘lacks ambition and falls short’. “Besides its negative environmental impact, food waste is unacceptable from an ethical perspective and has financial consequences for consumers – even more so in times of high food price inflation,” senior food policy officer Camille Perrin told FoodNavigator.

“Cutting food waste is a win-win for the planet and consumers’ wallets, but it requires joined-up efforts from all actors in the food chain.”

Food waste targets for processors and manufacturers ‘challenging’

As for the Commission’s proposed 10% food waste reduction in processing and manufacturing, industry fears the commitment would be ‘challenging’ because of its absolute nature.

“Setting targets without flexible measures risks unrealistic goals,” according to trade association FoodDrinkEurope (FDE), which represents food and beverage manufacturers across Europe.

“A more feasible and adaptable target would be one based on a calculation of ‘per tonne of food produced’, because this would help businesses continue cutting food waste in a targeted way whilst building in the necessary flexibility to account for changes in production.”

Imagine you’re a baker…

The analogy offered up by FDE’s Rafael Sampson, manager, public affairs and public relations, relates to a baker wanting to reduce food waste. “If you produce 100 loaves a day but 10 get wasted, the current proposal would have you cut those wasted loaves from 10 down to nine, a 10% reduction. As a nominal target, that’s realistic.

“Nine loaves wasted is now your maximum and absolutely food waste reduction target. If your business is successful and you manage to double production to 200 loaves with an equal increase in food waste to 20 loaves, reducing waste to your maximum nine loaf target – as set by the current proposal – from 20, requires a -55% reduction, which is much harder to achieve.”

Food retail: The proposed 2020 baseline does not reflect industry’s efforts

On the retail side of things, the Commission has proposed that food waste be cut by 30% jointly at retail and consumption levels. The Parliament wants this increased to 40%.

Trade association EuroCommerce, which represents retailers and wholesalers in Europe, questions whether the proposed baseline year 2020 will best serve the sector. “We believe that 2020 is not an appropriate reference year, considering it is the year marked by the start of the COVID-19 pandemic,” noted the trade body.

Not only did the pandemic disrupt the retail sector, but many retail operators have been reducing food waste levels for longer than four years. “Tackling food waste has been a priority for the retail and wholesale sector for many years, as shown by Eurostat results where retail accounts for the least amount of food waste, only 7%,” EuroCommerce director for environment and product policy Els Bedert told this publication.

EuroCommerce supports the Commission’s flexibility that allows Member States to derogate from the 2020 baseline and choose an earlier one. But it may be that Member States lack data to support an earlier baseline year. “On top of that, it remains unclear how much data Member States would need to provide to justify a different baseline year.”

The environment and product policy lead wants more actions from policymakers by setting targets that recognise the process retail and wholesale sectors have already made and ensuring every stakeholder in the supply chain contributes.

“Granting VAT relief for food donations and minimising administrative burdens when donating food will also help to address the food waste challenge.”

Food waste targets aside, what else can be done?

Looking beyond the proposed food targets, how else could the Directive help reduce food waste across the EU?

BEUC’s Perrin is calling for policymakers to clearly distinguish between edible and non-edible food waste, at least at the household level. “The more consumers cook from scratch at home, which is encouraged for health reasons, the higher the amount of food ‘waste’ they are likely to generate – such as inedible parts of fruit and vegetables like peels.”

The consumer organisation would also like to see clearer date marking on packaged food products.

The Commission acknowledges that better understanding and use of date marking on food – i.e. ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ dates – can help reduce food waste in the EU. Under the Farm to Fork Strategy, the Commission has committed to proposing a revision of EU rules on date marking, and is currently carrying out an impact assessment and consumer research to support its proposal.

According to BEUC, the Commission’s proposed revision is ‘long overdue’.

Making food waste targets legally binding: Where to now?

The proposed law, if adopted, would see Member States responsible for enforcing these legally binding targets. This begs the question: do Member States have the capacity to take on that responsibility?

For food law expert Merten-Lentz, the question goes even further: “Do the Member States consider they have the full capability to respect the targets, or rather that the hardest work will be for all the business operators?

“Most NGOs are very sceptical about the commitment of Member States, and often point to their slow progress towards reducing food waste.”

As to when the proposed law could be enforced, Member States are preparing to discuss the Commission’s proposal next month.

Since the topic is ‘highly sensitive’, Merten-Lentz suggested it may even require trilogues (which can take several months) to come up with a text that the Council, Parliament, and Commission can all agree on.

“Considering the upcoming election, the adoption could be considerably delayed. Once adopted, Member States should have 18 months to transport the Directive’s provisions into their national legislation.