Earlier this year the French government introduced legislation making it illegal for supermarkets to throw away food that had gone past its “sell by” date. Under the new law they must now donate unsold food to charities and food banks or face fines.
The Italian government recently announced that it is also planning legislation on supermarkets and food waste, although rather than impose fines the proposed law would provide tax incentives to food outlets that donate unsold food to charities.
Both of these developments are the culmination of a long campaign by consumer, anti-poverty and anti-food waste groups.
It would be good to see similar legislation introduced in the UK and other countries, although even here we are beginning to see some small but significant initiatives.
The supermarket chain Asda, for example, has had some success with its “wonky veg” boxes initiative, whilst Waitrose has found customers more than happy to buy storm-damaged apples and misshapen tomatoes.
But let us not lose focus of the real problem.
Whilst supermarkets are absolutely central to the problem of food waste, only a small proportion of food waste created by supermarkets is actually generated within the supermarkets themselves.
Far more food is wasted between the supplier and the supermarket, where the latter’s ridiculously strict cosmetic standards mean that perfectly healthy food is regularly thrown away or left unpicked.
As a member of the Worcestershire Gleaning Network I have witnessed personally the sheer scale of waste these exacting standards produce. A visit to a fruit farm last year yielded several tonnes of beautiful, tasty apples that we were able to deliver to food banks, homeless shelters and other charities. These apples would otherwise not have been picked, simply because they had minor blemishes or were slightly the wrong colour, size or shape.
However, the worst offending area of supermarket-generated food waste is the one where we consumers have most control – ourselves. Around 40% of all supermarket food waste is food that we buy but then throw away at home.
Supermarkets make their money by shifting a lot of products in as short a space of time as possible. That is their business model, and they have long perfected the art of encouraging their customers to over-purchase – bombarding us with special offers, such as “buy three for the price of two” as we push our trolleys up and down the aisles. The end result is that we often buy and, eventually throw away, food we don’t really need.
Again, there are some positive developments in this area too. One UK supermarket chain, Tesco, recently responded to criticisms from consumer groups by ceasing its “buy one get one free” offers on bags of salad leaves. This was after the company’s own research had confirmed that a huge proportion of the additional “free” salad bags were not eaten by customers and eventually simply thrown out.
By far the biggest area of potential change, however, is completely within our powers: a change to our shopping habits, for example:
– refusing to be taken in by offers that encourage us to purchase food that we don’t need;
– buying fruit and vegetables loose rather than pre-packed (another way supermarkets get us to buy more than we need);
– shopping regularly, for a few days at a time, instead of doing a single large weekly shop, which is more likely to lead to purchases being thrown away at the end of the week;
– using a bit of common sense when interpreting “use by” and “sell by” dates. Forget the date: if it looks OK and smells OK then it’s OK (unless it’s a McDonald’s burger, such as this one which seven years on still bears a disturbingly close resemblance to how it must have looked on the day it was purchased);
– helping to lobby the big supermarkets about food waste, for example by signing this petition.
Small steps all, but they could make a big difference.
OK, away with the soap box and on with the stripey apron. Let’s get on with the recipe.
This is a dish with a distinctive rich, spicy hot flavour. It’s a wonderfully flavoured, comforting bowl of goodness on a cold evening.
The oil used in the cooking process is my version of ma-la, an essential element of much of Szechuan cooking. It’s key here in laying the incredible base flavours for this truly lovely dish, which is probably my favourite of all the recipes I’ve created to date.
Szechuan-style mushrooms with aubergine
1 large aubergine
400 g organic mushrooms (preferably a mixture – shiitake, oyster etc)
4 spring onions, including green parts, sliced diagonally
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 red chilli, seeds in, finely chopped
2 cm piece of ginger, peeled and finely chopped
for the oil
125 ml groundnut oil
2 star anise
1 tsp Szechuan peppercorns
1 tsp dried chillies
1 tbsp toasted sesame oil
for the sauce
100 ml organic soy sauce
50 ml Chinese rice wine (use sake or dry sherry if not available)
1 tbsp maple syrup
1 tsp cornflour
1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
1 spring onion, white and green parts, finely sliced
1. Place a wok over a high heat. Add the oil and once it is hot enough to start shimmering add the star anise, the Szechuan peppercorns and the chilli flakes and stir to combine. Keep on a high heat for thirty seconds then remove from the heat. Sir in the sesame oil and leave to cool for a few minutes before straining the oil through a muslin cloth placed over a fine sieve. This makes a little more oil than you need for this recipe, but the rest can be kept in a sealed container. I guarantee you that you will want to use it again!
2. Whisk together the soy sauce, rice wine, maple syrup and cornflour, ensuring there are no lumps.
3. Clean the mushrooms and cut any large ones into 1cm thick slices. Cut the stalk off the aubergine. Slice the aubergine lengthways into quarters and cut across these quarters into 1 cm slices.
4. Clean the wok and place back over a high heat. Once it is hot pour in three tablespoons of the spiced oil. As soon as the oil begins to shimmer, add the aubergine and stir fry, stirring rapidly to prevent burning, for 4 minutes. Add another tablespoonful of the oil followed by the mushroom and stir fry for a further 4 minutes before adding the spring onion, garlic, chilli and ginger. Add a little more oil if necessary. Keep stirring and after a further 2 minutes add the sauce. It will bubble up rapidly. Give everything a final stir to combine then remove from the heat. Serve garnished with the toasted sesame seeds and sliced spring onion alongside some plain steamed rice.