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We work extremely hard across all areas of our business –farmers, suppliers, distributors and stores – on a shared goal of minimising the amount of M&S food that goes unsold. Our key priority at M&S is to reduce food waste occurring in the first place whilst ensuring that, where there is food surplus, we put it to the best possible use.

As you may have read on the blog before, since October last year, we have been rolling out our unsold food redistribution scheme to all of our owned stores. Working with Neighbourly.com, all of our owned stores now work with over 500 charities such as food banks, churches, community centres, community cafés and hospices. We are able to support with fruit, vegetables, bakery items and grocery items like pasta, cereal and cooking sauces.

The next phase of this project has been looking at how we can expand the type of food we can redistribute to include chilled items. The challenge is that all chilled products have a use by date and, in line with regulations, we are currently unable to redistribute any food that has gone past its use by date These products typically have a fairly short shelf life, and the reality is most charities don’t have the infrastructure in place to be able to collect from a store after it closes and redistribute the food before midnight. We also have a responsibility to ensure that the food we are redistributing will not become unfit for consumption shortly after collection.

In recent months, we have taken on the challenge of finding a solution through freezing in store to prove that this could be done in a way that is food safe and legally compliant. Following engagement with DEFRA and with our primary authority, Westminster City Council, we carried out extensive testing to show that we can get chilled food down to -2°C in the time between the store closing and midnight. In order to maintain food safety, every product is re labelled with a new best before date of a month from freezing, and these products are kept in a designated, segregated area of the freezer. We have used this approach to conduct an in-store trial in three of our Central London stores and successfully redistributed frozen food to City Harvest, a London food charity.

The exciting news is that we have now been provided with ‘assured advice’ from Westminster City Council, our primary authority, that they are satisfied that the procedures we have in place are sufficient to ensure food safety, which gives us the green light to carry on with assessing and trialling this method.

So now we have proved the concept, what next? We have a lot of work to do!  We need to assess the viability, scale and opportunity of rolling this out further, and there are a number of factors to work through, from establishing which stores have the freezer capacity, to finding redistribution partners that have the logistics infrastructure and storage capacity to move and store frozen food, which will be absolutely key. But getting the ‘assured advice’ is the green light we needed to press ahead with assessing and trialling the viability of frozen food redistribution, and this has the potential to significantly increase the type and amount of unsold food we can redistribute.  

Commenting on this initiative, Dr Richard Swannell, Director at WRAP said “We know from our latest research into food waste surplus that over half of the food waste generated by the UK manufacturing and retail sectors is avoidable. Through WRAP’s Courtauld Commitment 2025 work to encourage a combination of waste prevention, redistribution to people and diversion to animal feed, the grocery supply chain could, in the next 10 years, cut its avoidable food waste by over 40%. A number of challenges exist which make it difficult for retailers to redistribute surplus food from back of store. By proving the concept that chilled foods can be safely frozen for redistribution, M&S can now work towards expanding the variety and amount of food they can redistribute, not only reducing food waste but also saving charities money.”