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Food waste in the EU - factsheet

28 November 2016
by eub2 -- last modified 28 November 2016

Around 88 million tonnes of food are wasted annually in the EU – around 20 per cent of all food produced, with associated costs estimated at EUR 143 billion. The EU is looking for every opportunity to prevent food waste and strengthen sustainability of the food system.


What is food waste?

Food waste is waste which is generated in the production, distribution and consumption of food. In order to fight food waste The European Union needs to understand where we lose food, how much and why. This is why, as part of the Circular Economy Package adopted in 2015, the Commission will elaborate a methodology to measure food waste. This methodology will illustrate, in the light of EU definitions of "food" and "waste", what material is regarded as food waste and what is not, at each stage of the food supply chain. Consistent measurement of food waste levels in the EU and reporting will allow Member States and actors in the food value chain to compare and monitor food waste levels, and thereby assess the effectiveness of food waste prevention initiatives.

What is the scale of the problem?

Food waste is a significant concern in Europe: it is estimated that around 88 million tonnes of food are wasted annually in the EU – around 20% of all food produced – with related costs valued at 143 billion euros. Food is lost or wasted along the whole food supply chain: on the farm, in processing and manufacture, in shops, in restaurants and canteens, and at home. Food waste puts undue pressure on finite natural resources and the environment. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, approximately one-third of all food produced in the world is lost or wasted, requiring cropland area the size of China and generating about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Apart from its significant economic and environmental impacts, food waste also has an important economic and social angle in a world where over 800 million people suffer from hunger – the recovery and redistribution of surplus food should be facilitated so that safe, edible food can reach those who need it the most.

Is the EU already doing something about it? What about national policies?

Since 2012, the Commission has engaged and worked actively with all actors to identify where food waste occurs in the food chain, where barriers to food waste prevention have been encountered and areas where actions are needed at EU level. 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.

In order to be effective, food waste prevention requires action at all levels (global, EU, national, regional and local) and engagement of all key players in order to build integrated programmes required to implement change throughout the food value chain. At national level, some Member States have developed national food waste prevention programmes which have already delivered concrete results. In 2016, two EU Member States (France and Italy) have also adopted specific legislation to promote and facilitate implementation of food waste prevention action and cooperation between the key players.

In September 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 including a target to halve per capita food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains. The EU and its Member States are committed to meeting this goal.

What is the Commission proposing to re-launch the EU's action in this area?

The Commission's Circular Economy Package has singled out food waste prevention as a priority area for action and calls on Member States to reduce food waste generation in line with Sustainable Development Goals. The new waste legislation proposal requires Member States to reduce food waste at each stage of the food supply chain, monitor food waste levels and report back in order to facilitate exchange between actors on progress made.

The Commission's action plan to prevent food waste in the EU includes:

  • developing common EU methodology to measure food waste and defining relevant indicators (implementing act to be put forward following adoption of the Commission's proposal to revise the Waste Framework Directive);
  • establishing an EU Platform on Food Losses and Food Waste, which brings together Member States and all actors of the food chain, to help define the measures needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals on food waste and share best practice and results achieved;
  • taking measures to clarify EU legislation relating to waste, food and feed, and facilitate food donation as well as the valorisation of former foodstuffs and by-products as animal feed without compromising food and feed safety;
  • examining ways to improve the use of date marking by actors of the food chain and its understanding by consumers, in particular the "best before" label.

What will the Commission do to avoid the discarding of edible food?

The Commission will develop, in co-operation with Member States and stakeholders, EU food donation guidelines to help food donors, food banks and other charity organisations comply with relevant EU legislation (food safety, traceability, food hygiene, labelling etc.), with adoption forecast for end 2017.

The Commission will also elaborate the guidelines on the use of former foodstuffs in feed and has already clearly excluded feed materials from the scope of the waste legislative proposal. This will ensure that former foodstuffs (for instance, broken biscuits or stale bread), which are safe to eat but cannot go into the food chain for marketing reasons, are not considered as "waste" anywhere in the EU and can therefore be utilised as a resource to produce animal feed.

What is the EU Platform on Food Losses and Food Waste?

The Platform, which first gathers on 29 November 2016, will be the key forum at EU level to help all players identify and implement food waste prevention solutions to achieve the related Sustainable Development Goals. Importantly, the Platform will promote inter-sector cooperation and sharing of best practice and results. The EU Platform on Food Losses and Food Waste aims to support all actors in rethinking a food value chain where food waste is minimised and value gained from food produced is maximised, thereby facilitating our transition to a circular economy and more sustainable food systems.

For the composition of the Platform, the Commission sought to ensure not only a high level of expertise but also a balanced representation of know-how and areas of interest in the food value chain, taking into account the Platform's mandate and future areas of work.

In the end, a total of 70 members will be part of the Platform. 33 public entities - EU Member States, EFTA countries, EU bodies (Committee of the Region, European Economic and Social Committee), international organisations (OECD, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and UN Environment Programme (UNEP)) and 37 representatives from the private sector, selected following a public call for applications, will be represented.

The members - appointed for the term of the current Commission (i.e. until 31 November 2019) will meet on a regular basis (two meetings are already planned for 2017).

Exchange and dialogue with organisations not represented in the Platform are also foreseen through consultative networks and tools, meetings and public conferences.

The Commission may also invite additional organisations, on an ad hoc basis, to meetings of the Platform or its sub-groups in order to provide additional expertise in specific subject areas.

The Commission will regularly publish on its website the information on the Platform's work and aims to webstream meetings of the Platform to expand its outreach.

What about date marking? Is it a good way to tackle the issue?

A Eurobarometer carried out in 2015 reveals that while the majority of consumers (58%) declare that they always look at date marking (i.e. "use by" and "best before" dates found on food labelling) when shopping and preparing meals, less than 1 in 2 understand its meaning. Misinterpretation by consumers of the meaning of date marking is considered to have a significant impact on food waste in the home (15-33%, depending on the study).

In addition, the manner in which date marking is utilised by food business operators and regulatory authorities to manage the food supply chain can also have a significant impact on food waste.

The Commission is therefore examining ways to improve understanding and use of date marking rules by all actors in order to prevent food which is still safe and edible from being thrown away, at each stage of the food supply chain.

The Commission has produced an information leaflet in all EU languages and an infographic to explain the difference between these two dates found on food packaging.

How will the Commission tackle the problem of confusion of 'date labels' on food?

In order to help inform its future work on date marking, the Commission has launched an external study to map how date marking is used in the market by food business operators and control authorities. Findings from this research, expected by the end of 2017, will support policy making in relation to date marking and food waste prevention.

Given that food business operators are responsible for establishing date marking, the Commission may also develop in future guidance to support industry and facilitate a more consistent use of dates based on a shared understanding of terminology.

With respect to labelling rules, the Commission is considering possible options to simplify date marking on foodstuffs; for instance, by extending the list of foods which are exempt from the obligation to include a "best before" date in food labelling. Today these include items such as vinegar, sugar, salt, chewing gum, but could include other foods for which removal of date marking would not pose a safety concern.

The Commission may also propose to modify terminology used for date marking on food labelling if there is evidence that alternate wording is better understood and more useful to consumers.

The Commission will discuss these options in depth with Member States and stakeholders, ensuring that any changes proposed contribute to food waste prevention, meet consumer information needs and most importantly, do not put consumer safety at risk.

The Commission will also continue to inform about the meaning of date marking on food products, seeking to complement the initiatives carried out by public authorities and stakeholders at national level. In this context, the EU Platform on Food Losses and Food Waste will provide an important forum for members to share experience and identify best practices in promoting consumer understanding of date marking.

What can I do as an EU consumer to contribute to less food waste?

We can do simple things each day to save food and save money on our grocery bills. The Commission has published a simple leaflet outlining 10 tips to help consumers fight food waste: What can I do in my daily life to limit food waste?

Examples of consumer campaigns on food waste prevention organised at local, regional, national and global levels can be found on the Commission's food waste website. These include the UK's Love Food, Hate Waste campaign, which has contributed to a 15% reduction in household food waste levels between 2007 and 2012, as well as global, multi-stakeholder campaigns such as the Think.Eat.Save campaign put in place by UNEP, FAO and partners as part of the SAVE FOOD initiative.

Food waste

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