Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 10 July 2014

Yes, what we throw out really is food for thought

New reports say we waste a fortune on food annually. Two writers reveal what goes in the bin

Gone off: fruit and vegetables are the food items most commonly thrown out ridge with food

An incredible 15 million tons of food is thrown away in the UK every year, half of it by households. Of this, four million tons is still edible.

These shocking figures were revealed by the Government's own waste reduction advisory body and comes after the UK's biggest grocery retailer, Tesco, said it dumped 28,000 tons of food in the first six months of this year.

An estimated 68% of bagged salad gets thrown out, 35% of it by families. Other foodstuffs dumped include 40% of apples and just under half of bakery items.

This has led to calls for supermarkets to end multi-buy bargains to prevent people buying more than they will end up eating.

While the food waste figures are astonishing, the good news is that Northern Ireland people are among the least wasteful in the UK. Households here throw away just under 6% of the goods they buy every week, 1% less than the national average.

A survey by Samsung Digital Appliances shows:

The average Northern Ireland home throws away £532.48 worth of food every year;

55% of households here cook too much food and end up throwing the surplus away;

Some 36% of people here say they throw food away unnecessarily because they are confused by 'Best before' dates.

With this in mind we asked two writers, Frances Burscough and Una Brankin, to tell us what is in their typical weekly shopping trolley and what ends up getting thrown out uneaten.

Frances: 'If food looked ok and smelled ok, we ate it'

According to new reports, the cost of groceries is going up at a staggering rate and yet the amount we waste is too. That seems strange at the best of times, but during a recession it's really difficult to believe or understand.

Or at least that's the case for the rest of the UK.

Here in Northern Ireland we are among the least wasteful in the British Isles and I am very happy to say I reflect that trend.

Like a lot of Northerners, I was brought up to believe in the "waste not, want not" approach to housekeeping and it's always stood me in good stead.

But I do have a theory about all this wastage that has become such a first-world problem. In the old days, before 'sell-by' and 'use-by' dates were dreamt up, we were a lot more calm and relaxed about food safety. If it looked okand it smelled ok, then we ate it. End of.

Nowadays, kids have food modern safety standards drummed into them at school and they are terrified of consuming anything that doesn't pass their scrutiny and those exacting standards.

My own son is a good example. If he's in the kitchen when I'm cooking his dinner, he automatically checks all the labels and examines all the ingredients, like some kind of forensics officer. Even if something is only a day out of date, he lectures me about salmonella and E.coli and will watch and wait until I've thrown the offending item into the bin.

When he's not there... well I rarely bother to look at dates. For me, a carrot is still a carrot if it's hard and crisp or soft and bendable.

Now obviously I wouldn't cook rancid, putrefying meat crawling with maggots, but I'm not paranoid about a bit of mould either. Waste not want not and all that.

And no one has ever died of E.coli on my watch!

There is of course some waste that is inevitable. I can understand the salad wastage problem, because it goes off so quickly and is usually hidden from immediate view in the salad drawer of the fridge. So I must confess I've tossed out a few salads over the years. But other than that I rarely allow anything to go unused for long.

Certainly not the wine.

As for the dry heel end of bread, those soft crackers left in the packet and the stale bit of Christmas cake that one finds in the back of the cupboard, well these are a veritable feast for the garden birds (who don't worry about use-by dates) and so I don't consider that a waste.

Una: 'We're bred here not to waste our food'

I'm not normally wasteful but the amount of food I've had to throw out recently is sinful.

I've had to change my diet quite radically in the last few months due to apparent allergies, and finding the cause of them has led to a fuller bin that usual. A consultation with a herbalist suggested that a recurring skin irritation is due to too much sugar, dairy, processed food, wheat and meat in my diet, so I went home and threw out all the cheese, bread and sweets I had in the fridge and cupboard.

After that, the contents of my shopping basket changed considerably, as did the bin's, I'm afraid. I loaded up on a list of healthy organic things recommended by the herbalist – and this is where the waste comes in. I'm usually buying only for two, and sometimes just myself when my husband is away, and it's difficult to buy small quantities of vegetable, especially organic.

There is far too much celery in a bunch for my requirements, and far too many carrots (right, top), leeks and spinach in the average organic bags, and there are only so many stir fries you can make with them before they begin to get fusty. The same applies to salad leaves and pre-prepared salads. There's always too much and they're not nice when they're not fresh. I'm also throwing out boiled potatoes all the time but that's not the distributor's fault. It's a force of habit, from putting too many in the pot, and that's from being brought up on a farm where they were the main focus of the dinner and where they were never wasted because there was always a dog or calves or hens around to scoff the leftovers.

Before I was advised to change my diet I hardly ever threw out food. Having spent six years doing a degree and a post-grad at university, I learned how to make food stretch.

Leftover ingredients were always gathered up and thrown into an omelette, stir fry or a curry. Unfinished takeaway meals and pizzas were reheated the next day, sometimes for breakfast. I'm still vaguely horrified when I visit my sister in the Hollywood Hills and make her Irish stew which she loves, but will not even contemplate two days in row. She also throws out half her gourmet Thai takeaways without a second thought.

As the Samsung survey shows, it is bred in us Ulster people – especially those from the country – not to be wasteful.

So I was extremely reluctant to have to clear my cupboards again when the new diet didn't get rid of the itching, and when a health consultant yesterday advised me to cut out eggs, peppers, citrus fruit, biscuits and cakes and kidney beans – all of which makes up about half my shopping basket.

According to the survey, one reason people in Northern Ireland may be less wasteful than other areas in the UK could be down to the fact that they are more likely to use a strict system of storing their food in their fridge freezer, making use of separate containers, sections and or shelves for different items of food and drink, and therefore keeping their food fresher for longer. This doesn't tally with me; I'm inclined to stock up on bargains and throw them into the freezer will-nilly before rushing off somewhere, but my thrifty friends and family are better organised and know exactly what's there to defrost and when.

It's true that, like the Scots, we in Northern Ireland are more likely to measure portion sizes before making a meal, which minimises the amount of cooked food that we end up throwing away, but it's the fresh ingredients I'm often left with a glut of.

After being shamed by this survey, I'll be more careful with what I put in my shopping basket in future but it looks like I'll have to go a bit further down the road to buy loose organics in future, rather than throwing out the mounting dregs of my bagged veggies and salad.

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