How Norway is selling out-of-date food to help tackle waste

They might not taste quite the same,” says Naeeh Ahmed, 37, holding up for inspection a pack of Old El Paso soft tacos. The tower of boxes in front of him are three weeks past their best before date but Ahmed, operations manager at the Best Før supermarket in Oslo, says they’ll stay on display for a good few weeks yet. The same goes for the chocolate biscuits precariously piled up in the display – four weeks past their best before date – and the packs of Tassimo coffee pods that should have been sold in April. But all the prices reflect the product’s age: half-price for the tacos, two-thirds off the biscuits and, at 30 kroner (£3.66) for 32 pods, the coffee is also less than half its regular price.

It would be hard to find cheaper food in Oslo than that sold at Best Før. They flog the stuff that no one else has been able to get rid off. Products whose season has passed, or which have been overproduced, have been arriving at this small store since October last year when the mainstream Lentusgruppen supermarket chain heeded the call of the Norwegian government and decided to take food waste seriously. They established an offshoot in Oslo, the first of its kind in the city, selling the stuff other stores and suppliers throw away. It’s all up front – the shop looks like any other, but a large sign informs customers of the slightly different nature of the food down their aisles and in the chillers, which includes chicken fillets frozen a couple of days before going off.

 Best Før supermarket.

 Best Før supermarket is the first of its kind in Oslo, selling discounted food that other shops and suppliers would chuck out. Photograph: Daniel Boffey

“Most supermarkets won’t buy products that are within 10 days or so of their expiry date – it often has to be wasted,” Ahmed explains. “We thought, ‘Why don’t we make a place that has that kind of product, that will be beneficial to every party: the consumer, the supplier, and us. A win-win for everybody,” he says.

“Some who believe in the cause are very positive but, any new concept takes a little time in the market. It is going well though … every person in Norway knows these days that now is the time to do something before it is too late.” One customer, asked why he is shopping in this store, puts it succinctly: “I’m hungry.”

Best Før is the latest concept that has taken root in Norway, where collaboration between industry and the government to tackle food waste has sparked a range of innovations designed to make the most of what the country produces. A platform called bestfø, helps supermarkets identify food at risk of becoming inedible through a digital record of products’ sell-by dates, allowing stores to locate the food that needs a lower price, or alert charities of a load of produce coming their way, without the fuss of searching through the shelves. A new app, foodlist, encourages people to take photographs of food in stores coming to the end of its shelf life, to alert people that it needs to be eaten and where it can be found. A company called SNÅL frukt & grøn has popped up selling wonky vegetables, or odd coloured eggs, with a 30% discount. And the Norwegian government says they want more of this, and quickly.

It was 2010 when the food industry in Norway first started to take the issue seriously, with the encouragement of the state. A country dedicated to tackling climate change was waking up to the fact that its food waste corresponded to emitting 978,000 tonnes of CO2, or about one-quarter of the emissions from Norway’s cars. Industry started to collect statistics on waste through the food chain, from field or factory to the kitchen bin. Labels on products were adapted. “Use by” was changed to “best before”. Smaller packs of food were sold. Consumers were educated by people in stores about the best way to keep food fresh, and the costs of waste to their household budgets.

By 2015, edible food waste had been reduced by 12% per person, having risen for the previous five years. But a target of reducing waste 25% by the end of 2015 had not been met. Waste in the country still amounted to 355,000 tonnes a year, 42.1kg of food per person. Norwegians were still throwing away over 11% of fruit and vegetables and about 4% of solid dairy products.

 Food waste in Norway amounted to 355,00 tonnes a year.

 Food waste in Norway amounted to 355,00 tonnes a year in 2015. Photograph: 

In 2015 the UN agreed on reducing per capita food waste by half by 2030, and the Norwegians decided to go further. “Our goals are more ambitious than the UN because we are going to reduce food waste by half, all the way down the value chain,” said Norwegian minister for climate and the environment, Vidar Helgesen, of an agreement struck this summer with the food industry.

“We discussed a ban on food waste but it was decided legislation wasn’t enough,” he added. “It could lead to the problem being pushed down the value chain. We are collaborating with all the actors in the food industry and we are encouraging people to smell and taste their food before throwing it away. We are setting targets and how the industry gets there is up to them. We are unleashing innovation.”

The government is insisting that businesses and consumers reduce their waste by 15% by 2020 compared with 2015 levels, and secure a 30% reduction by 2025 to achieve the 50% goal by 2030. Some of what will happen in the coming years, Helgesen says, involves a compromise. “Packaging is important and that leaves us with a dilemma because we want to reduce the use of plastic. A lot of it is about just being sensible.” Helgesen believes people in Norway want to get this right.

Back in the Best Før store, Ahmed agrees with the minister that more traders are getting in on the act. There are a couple of similar stores just outside Oslo, he says. He is proud that Norway is pushing the issue. “We are environmentally friendly people,” Ahmed said, before explaining the idea of a website he is working on with a developer in his spare time. Called Savefood, it would allow individual households to advertise produce that needs to be eaten – almost like eBay.

“Somebody has to be first,” Ahmed adds, “and it is good if we are the one’s leading the way.”

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