Food waste in hospitality: a stinking problem

An estimated three million tons of food is thrown away every year in the UK hospitality industry. Source: Morning Advertiser

It’s especially busy in a restaurant kitchen at the end of a service. Dozens of waiters gather around black food waste bins scraping leftovers off plates. Juicy roast beef smacks onto ice-cream topped cakes, salads and grilled vegetables mix with chocolate mousse, salmon steaks blend into tiramisu. Everything is seasoned with gravy. Once expensive high-end meals, now turn into a stinking mass of waste, which makes everyone scrunch up their faces.

An estimated three million tons of food is thrown away every year in the UK hospitality industry, but customer leftovers amount to only a half of all waste produced. A study by the Sustainable Restaurant Association revealed that 65% of food waste occurred during cooking. This is particularly relevant to fine-dining, where portions are small and chefs have to cut half a carrot off to make it look fancy.

Another factor is the obsession with customer satisfaction that dominates in luxury restaurants. Breakfast buffets are packed with tons of sausages, eggs and bacon even with only two guests in the room. The truth is that a half-empty display doesn’t look expensive and it’s always better to be safe in case a client wants more. Sometimes managers deliberately prepare extra plates for a banquet to avoid the worst-case scenarios. The excess food ends up in a bin decomposing into the food-waste mash. Meanwhile, malnutrition-caused death has doubled in England between 2001 and 2017, with 8.4 million people in the UK struggling to afford food.

But the food can’t be donated due to strict corporate policies. “We can’t donate to food charities as our departments were previously accused of food poisoning, which created too many problems,” says Jurca Tamas, a hotel manager from Alexander House hotel. As explained by Dr Viachaslau Filimonau, a principal academic of hospitality management at Bournemouth University: “If a restaurant gives food leftovers away and someone gets food poisoning, they can sue the restaurant and get compensation. This is called the liability risk. If it’s a famous chain, the case would be all over the press, which will result in both financial and reputational losses.”

The European Food Hygiene legislation lacks guidelines on how to donate food, and some of its rules can be interpreted rigidly. In Europe, only Italy has clear legislation that limits donor’s liability and makes it easier to donate. The hospitality managers must abide by certain food-safety standards, which complicates the process of food donation. “Even if the food was cooked, there’s always the risk of post-contamination,” says Rob Koojimans, the co-founder of Food Safety Experts. “You can find harmful bacteria everywhere: in the air or even on people’s skin. If the food was out for at least one hour, we already consider it risky. In ideal temperature conditions, the number of bacteria that food contains would grow by eight in one hour. Therefore, a charity would have very little time for redistribution.”

Yet on the food-sharing platform Olio, three-quarters of all food is donated within an hour. Olio is a free mobile application, where users can post a picture of an unwanted food item while other users can request it for free. Scrolling down the app you can find anything from salted potato crisps to Planet Organic deli pots. “It’s like Tinder for food,” says Liam Jones, Olio’s business manager in the UK. The social enterprise has a volunteering scheme, which works with restaurants, cafes and groceries. Trained volunteers pick up unwanted food items and store them in their own fridges until someone requests the items on the app.

For Jones, the main challenge is convincing businesses to donate. “Everyone is terrified that if something goes wrong they’ll be in trouble.” To tackle the liability fears, Olio provides donors with a legal document, which sets out responsibilities of both sides. The only requirement for businesses is to make sure the food is safe when it gets to the volunteers. “The problem here is the overall apathy,” Jones says. “The liability risk and food safety concerns are easy to overcome if people care enough.”

Introducing tax deductions can be a way of encouraging businesses to waste less and help those in need. In Spain, 35% of the value of donated food can be claimed back as a corporate tax credit. In France, this number increases to 60%. Dr Filimonau thinks that the government must take an action to guide the hospitality industry out of the food-wasting catastrophe. Sadly, in a profit-driven environment, financial rewards or punishments work better than the voice of conscience.

What if with every gram of wasted beef the hospitality managers could see its cost and its carbon footprint? Would this awareness appeal to their moral sense? Winnow is a UK-based food waste initiative that does exactly that. The company installs digital weights under the food waste bins in professional kitchens. There is a tablet that staff members must use to identify an item and the reason for waste. The system then calculates the amount of money and carbon emissions wasted.

“Obviously, each of us has a different motivation to save food, whether we’re environmentally conscious, or whether we think that it’s socially unacceptable to waste food while so many people are hungry,” says Erna Klupacs, the marketing manager at Winnow. The company has collected data from over 450 sites in 25 countries to analyse the food wasting trends. “What we saw is that the most food waste in hospitality happens when the food is prepared in advance because it’s often hard to estimate the demand.”

Yet some businesses are abandoning “the more, the better” policy and are striving for quality over quantity. Sonya Meagor is the founder of Eco-Cuisine, a sustainable and organic catering company based in London. “One and a half rounds of sandwich, plus some cake and a piece of fruit, in my opinion, is plenty to make a good lunch. When I see other caterers bringing plates and plates of hot food for a lunch of 12 people, I think it’s too much.”

In a recent survey by Slingshot, over 65% of respondents said that the standard restaurant portions are too big to finish. More than a half of respondents leave 5–15% of the food on a plate. To tackle the issue, the Portuguese waste management company LIPOR created the “Menu Dose Certa” campaign, which means “the menu of the right size”. The company works with restaurants and cafes creating a special menu that contains sizes proportionate to what clients can eat. The guests can then decide which menu they want to order from. The menu with balanced portions is usually cheaper.

There must be a cultural shift to change our consumption habits. The resources we throw away might be vital in saving somebody’s life. By ordering more than what we can finish, we waste carbon emissions resulted from food production. A small act of thinking before ordering can change the world if everyone sticks to it.

This article was originally published in Slingshot magazine, Issue 1.

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