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8 Jun, 2015

China steps up fight against food waste via carrot-and-stick approach

By Zhang Xuan / Mike Peters

Beijing (China Daily), 2015-06-02 — As China’s ongoing Clean Your Plate campaign has gained momentum since it began in 2013, many managers of restaurants-especially buffets-say they have consistently been able to meet their goals of stopping food waste. But it hasn’t always been easy.

Four guests at the Xiang Wei Qing buffet restaurant in Lanzhou, Gansu province, were enraged early this month when the manager fined them 50 yuan per person for wasting food. The restaurant charges 75 yuan for its buffet but also assesses a 50-yuan refundable deposit for preventing food waste. Because a lot of food was left on the table, the restaurant manager says, the party did not get back the deposits, totaling 200 yuan.

A sign posted at the table read: DO NOT WASTE FOOD.

Fight against food waste takes carrot-and-stick approach

A buffet restaurant in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, displays a plate with a message encouraging customers to clean their plates. Photo provided to China Daily

A customer surnamed Li and his friends were furious at the restaurant’s “mandatory charges” and called police.”I have never seen this situation before, ” Li says angrily.

Since the Clean Your Plate campaign was launched in 2013 in a bid to curb food waste, many buffet restaurants have adopted similar strategies.

“For wasting too much food, it is reasonable for us to impose a penalty,” insists Wang Xiaogang, the Lanzhou restaurant’s manager. The wasted food every day in our restaurant could account for at least 5 percent of the total daily food supply, says.

“They left roughly 200 grams food. I think it is a suitable method to curb their disgraceful act, although we always don’t do like that, ” Wang says seriously. He says he believes half of restaurant customers waste a significant amount of food.

“Many guests are unaware of efforts to reduce food loss and waste, although some frugal slogans are put in noticeable positions such as at the entrance and at tables,” Wang says.

Food worth almost 200 billion yuan ($32.6 billion) is discarded from Chinese dining tables every year, according to an official government survey released in 2014.

Managers at some higher-end restaurants say food wastage is less frequent. Feast, in the East Beijing Hotel, provides guests with a semi-buffet style lunch, dinner and weekend brunch. “Based on our observation, there are still roughly three to five guests who waste food on a monthly basis,” Ji Angelina, a senior operations manager says.

People at buffets try to eat as much food as they can to get the most value for the money paid, Ji says. Often, “their eyes are bigger than their stomachs” and they order more food than they can finish, she adds.

Many restaurants are finding ways to control the flow of “all you can eat” food, to limit waste, save restaurant costs and protect customers from unhealthy overeating. At the “infinity brunch” at Beijing’s Agua restaurant, for example, instead of helping themselves from an open buffet, diners are invited to choose three courses from the brunch menu, then order more if they are still hungry.

In Xi’an, Shaanxi province, the Golden Hans buffet franchise has similarly tried to deliver food to tables gradually.

“The loss of wasted food could reach at least 50,000 yuan ($8,100) per year in my restaurant,” says Fan Li, a senior manager of Gold Hans. “So we try to eliminate waste any way we can.”

Some hotel chefs put less food out on each buffet platter to discourage patrons from taking big helpings all at once, but they restock the platters continuously.

“A host shows hospitality by honoring his guests with lots of food choices, tastes, colors that are served on special occasions, says Elie Houbeich, food-and-beverage director at the Westin Beijing Financial Center, which recently promoted an expanded “Retrolicious” brunch on Sundays. “Less food does not give a good impression.”

His colleague Virginia Yu agrees: “‘Lots of food looks nice’ really was the culture in China for older people since they had suffered hunger.” Today, young and better-educated people have this sense that excess can be wasteful, she adds.

East Beijing hotel has adopted smaller dessert portions, which also allows guests more choices at its semi-buffets, though customers can always get a second portion. “In this way, guests can try different types of cakes without wasting too much,” Ji says.

Brunches don’t allow takeaway, but customers at a la carte dinners are encouraged to take packaged leftovers home at more and more restaurants.

The best way to control waste, the Westin’s Houbeich says, is to educate and create awareness through social media by showing the impact of food wastage and contrasting this with the people who are suffering from hunger. This can create a better understanding and can drive change.

One such campaign is the UN’s “Think, Eat, Save”, which aims to reduce food loss and waste along the entire chain of food production and consumption, according to the program’s website.

Such subtle approaches continue to be more common that punitive actions like withholding deposits for wasting foods or even making waste a crime, which was proposed by China’s best-known agriculture scientist Yuan Longping.

“Our country has such a huge population and the arable land is very small if it is divided for each Chinese individual,” Yuan, known as “the Father of Hybrid Rice” by Chinese media, told China Central Television in 2013. “For years we agricultural scientists have been toiling to achieve an increase of 2.5 or 5 kilograms to the harvest of each mu (0.06 hectare) of rice, but after the food was increased, people wasted it,” he says. “I am proposing that the government make (regulations and policies) to encourage people to despise the waste of food and to treat it like a crime.”

An extensive circular released by the Communist Party of China in 2014 declared that food waste remains rampant due to ostentatious lifestyles and lack of supervision, and outlined measures prohibiting too much money being spent on food among officials. Government departments, organizations and State-owned enterprises must now publicize the amount they spend on dining for public supervision, Xinhua reports.