Monday, July 07, 2008

Should Steve Webb BOGOF?

Steve Webb, the Lib Dem shadow environment secretary, issued a press release on Gordon Brown’s call on families to throw away less food.

It reads:

"The problem of food waste has been made worse by the Government’s failure to get tough with supermarkets. Its cosy relationship with the big chains has stalled effective action.

"Supermarkets make it harder for householders to avoid food waste, while throwing away large quantities of edible food through poor stock management.

"They refuse to stock small portions, which are essential for the growing number of one-person households, and offer too many buy-one-get-one-free deals on perishable goods."

If supermarkets throw away lots of food that is to be deplored, but I would trust the profit motive (particularly in a market situation that is growing more difficult) to take care of that more than I would government regulation.

We should also look at the role government plays already. As the Tory blogger Dizzy Thinks has pointed out, a few years ago we moved from Best Before dates to Use By dates, which can only have encouraged people to throw food away:

Ironically it was a regulation brought in, as ever, to protect the public in the great paternal/nanny state. The consequence being that those who would no doubt vehemently oppose the repealing of 'Use By' on health and safety grounds, now find themselves moaning that we all follow the instructions and chuck the stuff away so we don't potentially get ill.

Frankly this is the best example of the Law of Unintended Consequence I've ever seen.

You can buy single portions of many things. It would be nice to see more, but don't we all have refrigerators and freezers now? There is nothing stopping us cooking half and keeping half for another day.

And BOGOF? As the first page of any economic textbook points out, if there is a good harvest and a glut of a product then the price will fall. And if it falls then people will buy more and, because the price has fallen, they will not worry so much about throwing some of it away.

BOGOF is only the modern manifestation of this basic economic fact. The alternative to it, presumably, is allowing the product to rot in the ground or on the tree.

And, by the way, you are not forced to take the second part of a "two for the price of one" offer. If you want only one bag of carrots then take only one. You are not losing anything.

The amount of food we throw away (and I do wonder where some of the figures quoted come from) is a manifestation of our current affluence and continued low inflation. To anyone who remembers the 1970s and the way that many people moaned about the price of food, it is immensely welcome.

No doubt there is a role for schools to play in teaching people lost arts like cooking with leftovers, but do not worry: if the economy takes a downturn then people will soon worry much more about the food they waste.

And, as John Hemming has just pointed out, it is unlikely that poor people are wasting much food even today.

Thanks to Mr Eugenides for the picture.

3 comments:

Bishop Hill said...

As others have pointed out, our colleagues in the EU have banned feeding left over food to pigs too.

Gotta love the EU though.

Jock Coats said...

There was certainly a lovely letter in the Oxford Mail a while back during a long and at times heated discussion on how our new alternate week collections were increasing rats in the city. Someone in a less well off part of the city than the nice middle class areas whence most of the moaners hailed suggested that rat infestations must be a symptom of an affluent area - that they never see rats because they never throw out any wasted food.

Anyway - "No doubt there is a role for schools to play in teaching people lost arts like cooking with leftovers, but do not worry: if the economy takes a downturn then people will soon worry much more about the food they waste."

Maybe. That assumes that by then we'll be able to afford the fuel with which to cook the leftovers!

Steve Webb MP said...

I like the title Jonathan!

My point re BOGOF for perishables is that no-one refuses something for nothing, perhaps ends up using a bit of it, and then throws the rest away. Why not just reduce the price of perishable goods if there's excess supply, then we buy what we want?

I certainly agree re 'best before' v. 'best by'

Steve W.