Mary Kenny: eat your crusts!
We should each do our part in reducing food waste this Christmas
What I'd really like for Christmas - and the run-up to Christmas - is to see less food waste. We've been marking the 170th anniversary of the Famine this year, and yet, 170 years later it is reported that one-third of the food purchased in Ireland is wasted or thrown away. In America, it's 50pc. If everyone in the EU stopped wasting food, the world's hungry could be fed five times over.
Sometimes you get a wave of revulsion, almost, against the abundance of food you see around you in this season of gorging. I remember standing at the check-out of a supermarket a week before Christmas with an over-laden trolley, and suddenly feeling that there was something repulsive about cramming our bellies with food and drink in a winter Bacchanal. Do we ever pause to think that gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins of old? And throwing away food in a world where people go hungry is surely one definition of decadence.
The TV cook Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has been on a mission to reduce household waste, which he launched by rooting through the dustbins of consumers in one Manchester street. There he found food (and clothes) by the tonne which was still fit for human consumption. According to Hugh, ordinary shoppers chuck out a third of all the salads they buy; 20pc of grapes as soon as they develop a slight wrinkle on the skin; 10pc of yoghurt; 10pc of cereal and 13pc of strawberries. And don't get him started on parsnips! These sweet and flavoursome root vegetables are destroyed by the tonne because certain supermarkets insist on a "cosmetic" standards for vegetables. They have to look pretty to appeal to customers. The ones that are a little too big or a little too small or a little too knobbly go into the rubbish tip.
There is a word for this procedure: immoral. It's immoral that food should be destroyed when it is perfectly edible. HF-W also calculated than a million hens a year die in vain in Britain - because their meat is chucked out by Kentucky Fried Chicken if it is not eaten within 90 minutes of being cooked.
Waste campaigners, who are, thankfully, a growing breed of food experts, often blame the supermarkets for the culture of waste - as well as over-exacting EU standards on quality control. EU regulations for apples run to 16 pages. ("The minimum size shall be 60mm, if measured by diameter or 90g, if measured by weight. Fruit of smaller sizes may be accepted, if the Brix level… is equal to or greater than to 10.5° Brix and the size is not smaller than 50mm or 70g.") If an apple does not meet EU criteria, out it goes. If a consignment of kiwi fruit measures a thrawneen less than 62g, the entire lot has to be destroyed. Similarly with lettuces, peaches, pears, nectarines, strawberries, grapes, tomatoes and all the rest: they must meet the weight and cosmetic appearance stipulated.
Yes, quality control of food has delivered better standards of produce to our tables, but some common sense must also enter the equation: imperfect apples can be used for cooking, for cider, for an apple brandy.
We can blame the EU for food waste, and we can blame the supermarkets, but to some extent we should also blame ourselves because we all waste food. Look in your fridge and admit it. We buy more than we need and we end up chucking it out. We're senselessly neurotic about "use by" dates, which are only advisory: the best advice being given now is to smell food and taste it, and ignore the "use by" date. Completely ignore the "sell by" date - that is purely for stock control by retailers.
Tristram Stuart, in his dense study of the global food scandal Waste, suggests that one of the reasons why we squander so much food is that we like over-stocking our fridges and larders. Women particularly may suffer from "The Good Mother Syndrome" - a "good mother" being a stereotype of she who provides an abundance of grub. Plenty of food on the table, and in reserve, has always been a sign of affluence, and hospitality often means piling the plates high - Mrs Doyle's "ah go on, you will, you will!" By this measure, it's almost logical that a country like Ireland, with such a strong folk memory of famine, should over-stock with food to the point of wasting it.
But although there's often an explanation, there's really no excuse: the global waste of food is greatly contributing to climate change - we're losing forests to ranch land to produce food which will be consigned to landfill sites, emitting methane gas in its turn. As for the discarding of fish: Greenpeace estimates that of the 186 million fish caught in European waters, 117 million are thrown back.
There are effective campaigners bringing about some change - restaurants and supermarkets are becoming more flexible, and allowing unsold food to be distributed to those in need. But Tristram Stuart says we each of us need to stop wasting food personally, and these are some of his rules: Use up leftovers. Make soups. Eat more offal (the French eat tripe, calf's head, tongue terrine, goose gizzard and cow's udders). Always write a shopping list and don't over-buy. Freeze surplus bread and turn it into breadcrumbs. And - eat your crusts! Crusts are thrown away by the lorry-load, and it's sinful.
This Christmas season, please, reduce the wanton waste that is so dismaying to the poor and so destructive to the planet.