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Miles Better?

15 September 2006

Shortening the distance from ‘field to plate’ can have a significant impact on sustainability and CSR policies, and improve the quality of catering in your organisation. But as Nick Parker explains, distance may not be the only factor to consider

WHAT DOES CATERING HAVE TO DO with corporate social responsibility? Catering is sometimes a small part of any FM consideration, and consequently its impact on corporate social responsibility can be neglected. Measures range from using energy-efficient kitchen equipment to the smart use of heating,lighting and water, good staffing practice to using local/sustainable suppliers, open-book finances, to recycling initiatives. The message is clear: the staff restaurant is a place where change for good can quickly be seen and appreciated by employees.

The message from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is that organisations should be adopting practices for “living within our means”. A widely used and accepted international definition of sustainable development is ‘Development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ At Bite, we believe that by choosing sustainable supply sources and, in the longer term, creating a sustainable supply chain for food and non-food items, is one of the most effective ways to achieve this aim.

When Bite looked at levels of local sourcing, its first issue was defining what is meant by ‘local’. Local sourcing makes no reference to quality, only proximity, and it’s for each company to decide where to set its limits. Bite believes that food products sourced within a 50km radius of each unit is reasonable to qualify as local.

Food miles
Put simply, food miles are the measure of the distance that food needs to travel from field to plate. According to the Report on Food Miles and Sustainable Development, published last year by DEFRA food transport has a significant - and growing impact on road congestion, traffic accidents, climate change, noise and air pollution. The Report estimates that the social and environmental costs of food transport are around £9bn every year, with more than half of these costs due to road congestion.

Food transport now accounts for 25 per cent of all heavy goods vehicle (HGV) kilometres in the UK, and consumers travel an average of 136 miles each per week by car to shop for food. Since 1974 the quantity of food transported by HGVs has doubled. In 2002, food transport produced 19m tonnes of carbon dioxide of which 10m tonnes were emitted in the UK and 9m tonnes were generated by food imports. This represents 1.8 per cent of the total annual emissions of carbon dioxide.

The Report concluded that, in general, higher levels of vehicle activity lead to higher environmental impacts. However, the mode, timing, location and efficiency of food transport are all as important as the distance travelled.

The Government is working with the food industry to reduce the environmental and social costs by encouraging the adoption of best practice and by measuring performance. It is consulting on proposals to reduce the environmental and social impacts of food transport by 20 per cent by 2012.

Food and Farming Minister Lord Bach said: "This study is an interesting contribution to the 'food miles' debate. It shows that the issue is complex and that a range of factors have an effect on the overall impacts of food transport, not purely the distance travelled by individual products”.

Bite has started tracking food miles for events, using some of the surprising answers generated by the exercise to create awareness and debate among catering decision-makers within organizations. In addition, Bite’s client unit managers are encouraged to buy food from local supply sources – but it’s not always as simple as you may think.

DEFRA’s report shows that food miles are not the only way to measure the environmental impact the food we eat can have. For example, the report shows that it is less environmentally friendly to grow British tomatoes than it is to import tomatoes from Spain. It says the energy needed to heat the glasshouses for growing tomatoes in Britain is significantly more than the energy used in transporting tomatoes from Spain, where no heating is used thanks to the warmer climate. However, British tomato growers have reduced the amount of energy they use in recent years and most now use natural gas for heating.

Bite took a provenance snapshot of fruit and veg used at its client, Business Objects, during June – a good time for British produce. There was a reduction of food miles as less food came from abroad and more was sourced within the UK. However, if Bite were to examine the basket during February when the availability of British produce is more limited, then the percentage of home-sourced products is likely to be significantly lower. Nonetheless, it does support Bite’s thinking on the importance of seasonal rather than just British products.

From 100 fruit and vegetable orders 20 were from an English source. Foreign-sourced fruit and vegetables accounted for 70 per cent, of which 23 per cent were ‘exotic’ products such as bananas, pineapples, mangoes which cannot be sourced in this country. In summary, ‘home’ sourced products accounted for 30% of the month’s expenditure.

Although meat is less subject to seasonal fluctuations than fruit and vegetables, it is necessary to take into account the amount of energy and associated CO2 emissions needed to rear and transport the meat, the premium paid for food that is scarcer or has traveled a long way, the support given to local economies, as well as freshness, taste and nutritional value. Meat produced with respect for the animals concerned will inevitably be far superior to intensively-reared animals.

With all this in mind, Bite looked at the top 20 meat products used by the same unit (in the month of April) and found that foreign-sourced meats accounted for just 20 per cent compared to 80 per cent which was home-sourced.

The availability of British produce on a commercial basis can be restricted, and it might be impossible to support a varied menu. Nevertheless, wherever possible, Bite purchases British, locally grown produce on a seasonal basis, supporting local growers and farmers, as and when commodities become available.

From experience, seasonal produce is competitively-priced, although it should be borne in mind that availability is often limited due to the UK’s slow growing season and, in some instances, quality can be compromised towards the end of the season.

Discussions will continue as to how to increase the use of locally produced food – but it is by no means a simple debate. There are many factors that need to be considered. Another way to make a difference is to buy British produce in its season. Buying seasonally helps negate the need for artificial heating in glasshouses.

Buying organic food can also help. Martin Cottingham of the Soil Association points out that organic farming cuts down on the fossil fuels used to manufacture and transport the chemicals used in mainstream agriculture. This is an aspect of the environmental cost of food that he thinks is too often ignored.

However, it is important to buy locally grown organic food rather than imported. To give an idea of how far food travels, a typical basket of 26 imported organic foods may have travelled the equivalent distance of six times around the equator.

Head of DEFRA’S food and drink industry division, Callton Young, argues this isn't a failsafe option, adding: "A longer distance traveled by ship is not as damaging as lots of shorter trips by HGVs."

At Business Objects, a leading business intelligence software company, in Maidenhead, Bite’s General Assistant, Dawn and her husband run a farm near High Wycombe with 3,500 laying hens. Since March 2004 she’s been providing eggs into the Business Objects kitchen. Compared to other suppliers’ eggs priced at 14p each, Dawn’s cost 8p each. Her eggs come from a superior breed of chicken fed on top-of-the-range food, and the distance from the farm to Bite’s unit is just 12 miles. According to Charles Renton, Bite catering manager at Business Objects, “We chose Dawn's eggs initially to support the local element, encourage the team to participate in other areas of the business, and the finances make sense –they’re cheaper than our other suppliers.”

Head Chef, Rafik Moujahid explains: “A favourite dish that we offer here both in the restaurants and in hospitality is a frittata. The combinations available with this dish allow us to offer it as a vegetarian or meat option using various influences from around the world – Spanish, Mexican, Italian, Japanese and so on. Using just the egg white and no cream it can also be very healthy. With the eggs being so fresh and good quality this is always a popular choice.”

Dawn’s farm is also moving into milk production (120 milking cows, three pedigree stud bulls, 120 followers & beef animals) and Business Objects will capitalise on this new source for another of its staples.

● Nick Parker is managing director of Bite Catering. Bite was born out of Bighams Ltd, a fresh food supplier to Waitrose and London foodhalls. In July 2004, its workplace contract catering activities were separated into Bite Catering Limited, a company dedicated to the pursuit of providing the best contracted out food services humanly possible.

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