Monday, 7 July 2008

Rissoles anyone?

Today we witnessed one of the most patronising and irrelevant announcements yet from our hapless government. A Cabinet Office report has investigated many food-related issues including how much food is thrown away in the UK each year. It estimates the weight thrown away to be 4.1 million tonnes annually and the value to be £8 per household per week. Our news bulletins are leading with grinning Gordon telling us to put our houses in order and to stop waste because it is a fine way to save money. As we can expect these days, the statistics are not new, they were contained in a report by an organisation called WRAP published in May 2008 at which time the appropriate minister to speak about it was the one with the most grating, whiny voice, the odious Joan Ruddock.

In May it was an interesting statistical sideshow, today it is a really serious problem. So what, I ask, causes food to be thrown away and who does it?. We can divide the sinners into 3 categories: (i) sellers of food (shops, wholesalers, importers, farmers, slaughterhouses), (ii) restaurants and cafes (iii) people in their homes.

Why do sellers throw food away? I would suggest three reasons: some of it rots before it can be sold, some of it is unsaleable because of EU regulations and some becomes damaged or contaminated. The first and third of these cannot be avoided except by improved efficiency but the commercial incentive to keep such waste to a minimum is already in place. The second cannot be changed except by the Eurocrats. If Gordon wants to make a difference he can campaign to ensure that EU regulations preventing sales of some foods apply only to food which is not fit for consumption. Fruit of the "wrong" shape or size is still fruit and, save in quite exceptional circumstances, is perfectly fit for consumption.

Why do restaurants and cafes throw away food? The reasons are essentially the same. Some is not ordered by customers and goes bad, some is not finished by customers and must be discarded and sometimes even the best cooks get something wrong (perhaps adding a wrong ingredient or accidentally allowing a dish or ingredient to become contaminated). It is hard to see where there is scope for savings without the introduction of potentially dangerous practices such as allowing uneaten food to be re-sold to another customer (yes, I know this happens but that just keeps the current waste figures below what they should be).

Why do we throw away food in our homes? I might not be a perfectly average example, but let's assume I am, why do I throw away food? Sometimes I cook something that turns out to be vile. It was neither my intention nor my desire, but if it tastes awful I'm not going to eat it. Sometimes I buy something I haven't tried before and find I don't like it. Sometimes biscuits go hard or cakes go soft because I haven't got round to eating them. Sometimes a bad apple or potato causes others to rot. If I make too much of something and there is only a little left there is no point saving it because it's not enough to form another meal; if it is enough to form the basis of another meal I do save it. If I have guests at my communal trough and they don't clear their plates I'm certainly not going to save the leftovers and eat something that has been slobbered over by a chum.

These are all just normal incidents of everyday life. They are not evidence of a wasteful spendthrift existence and the scope for reducing or eliminating such examples of waste is minimal. So what can I do? One obvious possibility is making sure I use what I buy to its full potential rather than throwing out a remnant and buying a replacement. For example, if I roast a chicken I could make stock from the carcass every time rather than just occasionally but I still have to throw out the bones whether they have been used merely as support for the flesh while roasting or have then been put to a second use. It is hard to see that making a stock reduces waste, if I need stock I either boil some bones or I use a cube or pre-bought liquid stock concentrate, boiling the bones reduces waste to the extent of one little paper stock cube wrapper per 2 pints of stock and one little cardboard box per 6 or 12 cubes or one little glass bottle (which goes in the recycling) for every gallon of stock - big deal - and, don't forget, boiling bones for stock takes more time, more gas and more money than using a cube.

Of course we could only buy stuff we are going to eat, only cook as much as we need rather than providing jumbo portions and, if we have cooked too much, be fastidious about using leftovers. Surely most of those on a tight budget do this already for sound financial reasons. If Mr & Mrs Poor have not already dug-out Granny Poor's book of rissole recipes they are hardly likely to do so because Gordon and his entourage have flown half way round the globe (for a conference which could have been conducted by satellite link) and has chosen to berate them on television before heading off for a slap-up feast at the expense of the Japanese taxpayer. Equally surely, those of less modest means are hardly likely to respond to Prime Ministerial nagging if the fate of a few slices of last week's salami does not worry them already.

The silly man is tilting at imaginary windmills again. If he wants to help households save £8 a week he could get rid of the zillion quangoes he has established, sack all the political advisers and spin doctors currently pretending to be civil servants and stop taking pointless flights to unnecessary conferences. That should do it. Now stop nagging us you stupid little man.

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