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How local Co-operation is leading the rest of the country

PUBLISHED: 13:44 05 December 2017 | UPDATED: 13:44 05 December 2017

East of England Co-op joint chief executive Roger Grosvenor launching its ground-breaking initiative on

East of England Co-op joint chief executive Roger Grosvenor launching its ground-breaking initiative on "best before" dates, which will save shoppers money and cut down on food waste. Picture: East of England Co-op

Well done the East of England Co-op for striking a blow against the scandalous ‘Best Before’ waste of food, says Andy Newman.

We have developed a strange love/hate relationship with supermarkets. We enjoy having a go at them for all manner of perceived sins, from the way they treat farmers and producers, nefarious practices to make us buy things we don’t need, and generally having too big an influence on what we eat.

And yet we can’t seem to resist giving them our custom, despite it being perfectly possible – if rather time-consuming – to purchase everything we need for our plates in smaller, independent shops.

One thing that most seem to agree on is that our supermarket chains are just too big – giant national and multi-national corporations which have little connection to the communities in which they operate.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. Here in East Anglia we have our own, human-scale supermarket chain, and this week it has been making national headlines for all the right reasons.

The East of England Co-op was founded in the middle of the 19th century, and the clue as to why it is different to other supermarkets is in the name. The founders wanted to bring a sense of co-operation into food retailing, selling at affordable prices; profit was not the over-riding concern.

Fast-forward 150 years, and the East of England Co-op now operates in a very different market, and yet its approach is still very much relevant. In a world where, scandalously, far too many people are reliant on foodbanks to feed their children, and where small-scale food and drink producers are regularly bullied by faceless retail giants, the Co-op is still guided by a strong set of ethics.

For example, its ‘Sourced Locally’ initiative has given a user-friendly first step into large-scale retailing for many of our local artisan producers. There can often be a sense that supermarkets are somehow working against producers; the Co-op is genuinely supportive.

This week, there is another reason for us to feel proud of our local supermarket chain. The eyes of the UK’s media has been focused on the retailer, because on Monday it announced that it is to become the first major supermarket in the country to sell food which has gone beyond its ‘Best Before’ date.

I have long wondered why these seemingly random dates are put on the packaging of so much of what we eat. If the product is genuinely perishable, it will have a ‘Use By’ date, which is something very different – it is there for safety reasons, and we should all take heed of it. But ‘Best Before’ dates are largely meaningless, and are a major reason why we as a country throw away 7.3 million tonnes of food ever year, with the average family wasting £60 per month on food which is then thrown in the bin.

The Co-op has said that it will continue to sell tinned goods and dried food such as pasta, crisps and rice after it has passed its ‘Best Before’ date in its 125 stores across the region.

Even better, it is planning to sell these goods for a flat rate of 10p. This will have two positive outcomes: it will encourage people to buy them, avoiding the need to throw them away. And it will make perfectly good food affordable for those for whom feeding their families is a constant struggle. It’s a genuine win:win.

I visited the Cromer Foodbank last week, and it was an instructive and sobering experience. With a tiny staff and an army of volunteers, it has helped more than 2,800 in the last year, including over 1,000 children, and has distributed over 30 tonnes of food in north Norfolk alone. That’s a vital lifeline for people who are having to decide between heating their homes and eating.

And yet as a nation we routinely dump many times this amount in the bin because of spurious and largely irrelevant ‘Best Before’ dates. It’s high time this scandalous waste stopped, and we should be proud that it is an East Anglian retailer which has stuck its head above the parapet and taken the first move.

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