By Thin Lei Win
ROME, June 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Europe's high levels of food waste are an ethical scandal at a time when hundreds of millions of people around the world are going hungry, the head of the region's food safety watchdog said on Friday.
European Union lawmakers have campaigned to slash food waste in the bloc, which currently throws away 88 million tonnes of food a year at a cost of 143 billion euros ($162 billion), according to the European Commission.
"I think it's a scandal, ethically speaking, to waste such an amount of food ... theoretically, 100 million people could potentially have the calories that we throw away," Bernhard Url told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Url, a veterinarian who has headed the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) since 2014, said the growing gap between food production and consumption had contributed to the high levels of waste of between 20% and 30%.
"The food production systems are so complex, spanning global supply chains, that people don't know where the stuff comes from, who is processing it, what is really in there. So there's a bit of distrust," he said
Url recalled his childhood on a farm in Austria, saying his mother refused to throw anything away because they had memories of going hungry.
"My parents witnessed the Second World War. My mother experienced being hungry every day," he said in an interview on the sidelines of a conference on agriculture.
EU lawmakers took a major step towards cutting waste last year when they backed a law requiring member states to report food waste levels yearly from 2020 and provide incentives for collecting and redistributing unsold food.
Globally, about a third of the world's food with a value of nearly $1 trillion is lost or thrown away each year, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
Critics say food waste is also environmentally destructive because when dumped in landfill, it rots and produces greenhouse gases.
Part of the reason for food waste in Europe is consumer confusion over "Best Before" and "Use By" labels, said Url.
While the former indicates a product's quality, the latter, applicable to perishable foods such as meats and eggs, is more stringent and indicates hygiene, he said.
The EFSA is based in Italy and funded by the European Union to provide independent scientific advice on food safety.
EFSA experts have conducted research to see if the shelf life of eggs could be extended to decrease food waste, but found increased risks of salmonella food poisoning, Url said.
"But the 'Best Before' date is one where more awareness has to be built with consumers and say, 'Don't throw it away. Look at it. Smell it and maybe you can use it'," he added.
Educating consumers is key and it can be done, Url said, pointing to how European cities learn to separate different types of waste.
"That was done in the 80s, 90s. Now in most European countries, you have very strict, very well functioning waste separation systems. So it's possible to educate and nudge consumers to a different behaviour."
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(Reporting By Thin Lei Win @thinink, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, and property rights. Visit www.trust.org)
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