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Danish surplus-food stores show way for Hong Kong to cut food waste

Wasteful Hong Kong, which consigns more than 25,000 tonnes of food to landfills every week, could learn a lesson from Denmark, where a supermarket selling surplus food has been so popular it recently opened a second store.

After launching in Copenhagen’s gritty inner city district of Amager earlier this year, the Wefood project this month attracted long queues as it opened a second branch in Norrebro, a trendy neighbourhood popular with left-leaning academics and immigrants.

Hipsters rubbed shoulders with working-class mums as a cooking school founded by Claus Meyer – a co-founder of Copenhagen’s celebrated Noma restaurant – handed out cauliflower soup and bread made from surplus ingredients.

“It’s awesome that instead of throwing things out they are choosing to sell it for money. You support a good cause,” says Signe Skovgaard Sorensen, a student, after picking up a bottle of upscale olive oil for 20 kroner (HK$22).

“Isn’t it great?” pensioner Olga Fruerlund says, holding up a jar of sweets that she planned to give to her grandchildren for Christmas. The sweets “can last for a hundred years because there is sugar in them”, she adds.

Selling expired food is legal in Denmark as long as it is clearly advertised and there is no immediate danger to consuming it. “We look, we smell, we feel the product and see if it’s still consumable,” project leader Bassel Hmeidan says.

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All products are donated by producers, import and export companies and local supermarkets, and are collected by Wefood’s staff, all of whom are volunteers. The store’s profit goes to charity.

Prices are around half of what they would be elsewhere, but even its biggest fans would struggle to do their weekly shop here. The products available depend on what is available from donors, resulting in an eclectic mix that changes from day to day.

One weekday afternoon, Wefood customers were greeted by a mountain of Disney and Star Wars-branded popcorn, while the fresh fruit section had been reduced to a handful of rotting apples.

In Hong Kong, food banks solicit food past its sell-by date from supermarkets and other stores, but the response has not been encouraging.

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“Managers always like to tell of how some stores used to donate until they got sued. This is particularly true since strict liability is imposed on food products,” Wendell Chan, project officer at Friends of the Earth (HK), recently wrote in the South China Morning Post.

“We estimate that businesses throw out HK$60 million worth of food yearly when almost half of low-income families lack reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food,” he wrote.

Writing ahead of World Food Day on October 16, Chan said Hong Kong throws out more than 3,600 tonnes of food as waste every day.

Food waste has become an increasingly hot topic in recent years, with initiatives ranging from a French ban last year on destroying unsold food products, to a global network of cafes serving dishes with food destined for the scrap heap.

British-based The Real Junk Food Project also opened the country’s first food waste supermarket in a warehouse near the northern city of Leeds in September. With a greater focus than its Danish peer on feeding the poor, the British project urges customers to simply “pay as they feel”.

A United Nations panel said earlier this month that supermarkets’ preference for perfect looking produce and the use of arbitrary “best before” labels cause massive food waste that, if reversed, could feed the world’s hungry.

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Nearly 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted every year, more than enough to sustain the one billion people suffering from hunger globally, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation says.

Denmark has managed to reduce its food waste by 25 per cent over the past five years, partly due to the influential “Stop Wasting Food” group founded by Russian-born activist Selina Juul in 2008.

Juul grew up in the 1980s Soviet Union and says she was shocked by the amount of food being thrown away in Denmark when she moved there as a 13-year-old in 1993.

“Surplus food has become very popular,” she says of one of the measures advocated by the group: offering heavy discounts on items that are about to expire, which is now done by most Danish supermarkets.

Inspired by Juul, one of Denmark’s biggest discount chains, Rema 1000, has become an unlikely champion in the battle against food waste. Two of its main initiatives are about reducing waste after the product has been sold: the company stopped offering bulk discounts in 2008 so that single-person households would not buy more than they could eat.

Last year it reduced the size and price of some of its bread loaves for the same reason.

“The biggest problem with food waste is among the customers,” says John Wagner, the chief executive of the Danish Grocers’ Association. Regular supermarkets are becoming better at forecasting demand for different products, but they need to do more to inform their customers that a lot of food is edible beyond its expiry date.

Wefood next year plans to open in Aarhus, Denmark’s second-largest city, but Wagner says the brand is unlikely to become a major chain.

“The problem should be solved before we get to the point where we have to give the products to a store like Wefood,” he says.

Additional reporting by Mark Sharp