No accounting for waste
Banker and charity worker Celene Loo leads me to Novotel Hong Kong Century's coffee shop kitchen. There, we bag up a full tray of chef Lui Tak-cheong's leftover croissants, Danish pastries and pain au chocolat. 'A bit less than usual today,' Lui says with a shrug. 'The restaurant was quite busy this morning.'
Then we are off to a nearby home for the elderly, where we hand out the small sealed bags. Each bears a sticker with a bilingual quote from the New Testament: 'And Jesus said to them. I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall never be hungry.'
Nurses and elderly residents greet Loo with a smile. The recipients have grown very fond of the pastries she brings through Giving Bread, the charity she founded in 2010.
Giving Bread acts as a conduit, tapping surplus food from a network of more than 50 individuals and food industry donors, for distribution to people in need. Loo's aim is to bridge the gap between food wastage on one hand and hunger on the other.
Loo says she has built relationships and goodwill with fine dining restaurants in Hong Kong over several years. But it took a lot of initial persuasion for them to come on board.
It was the small 'ma and pa bakeries' that first shared her vision, happily passing on surplus bread and cakes. 'The bigger or richer the restaurant or hotel, the more it feels it has something to lose,' she says.
Once a few got involved in Giving Bread's distribution rota, others were attracted by the stories that the volunteers told. Recipients now include cage-home dwellers and street-sleepers, as well as those who cannot afford three meals a day or are struggling with the rent.
Such selfless work - Loo is exceptionally modest - is in stark contrast to media reports on how most surplus food is treated.
Friends of the Earth, Hong Kong announced that some bakery and supermarket chains have been deliberately spoiling or contaminating food products before dumping them.
It is unclear whether this is done to prevent scavengers 'enjoying' the food, or to prevent food poisoning being associated with retailers.
The environmental group's statistics, gauged from analysis of food waste on five occasions from February to May of this year, put the amount of edible food dumped daily at 29 tonnes at present, one-third of which is still edible.
That is enough to feed about 48,000 three-person families.
The issue of food waste, of course, is not confined to retail vendors of perishable produce. Restaurants and cafes also have waste food to dispose of. Environmental Protection Department figures tallied the total daily food waste in Hong Kong as 840 tonnes in 2010.
There are no figures quantifying restaurant food waste. But Friends of the Earth did a study on Chinese banquet food waste two years ago, finding that 104 banquet tables equalled about 400kg of edible waste. It estimated total banquets per year in Hong Kong to be between two million and 2.5 million tables, or the equivalent of about 9,500 tonnes of trashed consumable cooked food.
The SCMP reported on June 28 that some of the four leading supermarket chains (ParknShop, Wellcome, CR Vanguard - best known for its CRC stores - and Jusco) plan to donate food to charity after a government request to reduce the amount of consumable dumped food.
The report followed environment minister Edward Yau Tang-wah's announcement at a Legislative Council meeting that Food and Environmental Hygiene Department staff met bosses at the four chains to suggest that they consider donating food to charities. Wellcome, ParknShop and Jusco said they were looking into all areas, and CR Vanguard did not comment.
The supermarkets contend that it is in their business interest to minimise the amount of food waste available to donate. But they add if they were to donate food, making sure that it was safe to eat would be a top priority. They also argue that it is not in their interests to deliberately create waste.
Supermarkets, hotels and restaurants also point to legal obstacles to redistributing surplus food.
In newspaper advertisements on June 27, ParknShop said it would consider waste reduction, but was cautious about safety. 'Giving away food, which has expired, has been damaged or decayed and taken down from the racks to be disposed of, would involve food safety risks,' the statement said.
'There is no reason for any retail company to create food waste intentionally.'
Clara Choi, marketing manager, HK supermarket business department of CR Vanguard, says the food 'disposed of from our supermarkets is already unfit for consumption. We would not add any bleach or harmful substance to unwanted products.'
Supermarkets measure their perishable food wastage as a shrinkage rate. ParknShop says its shrinkage rate of fresh food, at 0.4 per cent, is extremely low compared to overseas industry rates of 5 per cent to 6 per cent. It also says it has contacted selected food banks and is investigating details of donating edible food waste. The company insists it will also continue to follow government guidelines to explore other practical and safe way of food waste management.
But Celia Fung Sze-lai, environmental affairs officer at Friends of the Earth (HK) challenges ParknShop's claims that all the food it dumps is expired and rotten. 'The day after the ads, we found more [edible food], she says.
'We would like it to do more than spend money on adverts. It should use resources to stop the waste and make donations to charities.'
A Wellcome spokesman says the chain appreciates the importance of poverty alleviation and waste reduction and strives to be a responsible corporate citizen. Although the company has yet to start making charitable food donations, preparation is under way, he says. A pilot programme will be launched once Wellcome confirms a partnering organisation and works out the logistics of food donation.
Wellcome will also take part in the food waste recycling partnership scheme, a pilot food recycling programme launched by the EPD to turn food waste into materials such as compost and biogas.
'We believe that waste reduction must go hand in hand with food recycling. We have been making our best efforts to reduce food waste by dedicating significant resources to both accurate demand forecasting and efficient inventory management, which are two effective ways to reduce food waste.'
Local restaurant and bakery chain, Maxim's Group, initiated its surplus bread donation programme in 2009 with an aim to promote waste reduction.
With 19 NGOs on board, it currently distributes surplus baked products from some 80 participating Maxim's Cakes shops to the needy every day.
Its partners include Foodlink, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions' food recycling programme, local charity Yan Oi Tong, Tung Wah Group of Hospitals and Food Angel, among others. Arome Bakery, also owned by the group, recently joined this programme. Hotels have been getting involved with surplus food distribution.
Gregoire Michaud, pastry chef at the Four Seasons Hong Kong, was approached by Loo in 2010 and tried to get the hotel involved. 'Bakers work very hard, often overnight to ensure people get the best bread possible in the morning,' he says. 'Our best reward is to have bread eaten and enjoyed by all. Throwing bread away is not an option - ever.
'We give bread once a week, and I joined the distribution once, which was very moving and touching. Celene is the soul of Giving Bread and, thanks to her, Hong Kong starves a little less every day. I believe that, in a city like Hong Kong, nobody should suffer from hunger.'
Michaud notes that several organisations collect and distribute food. But more could be done: 'I have never been a fan of buffets from a quality control point of view. But they also generate an incredible amount of food waste. Minimising buffets would help reduce waste, but people in Hong Kong think they are value for money.'
Four Seasons Hong Kong generates 1.1 tonnes of food waste daily that is unsuitable for redistribution. Its general policy regarding the passing on of edible surplus food and drinks products reflects local legalities. 'Creams and dairy products, for example, cannot be redistributed,' explains director of public relations, Claire Blackshaw.
Food waste unsuitable for redistribution is collected by Kowloon Biotechnology. This is added to the tens of tonnes it collects daily, then processes into fish feed in the New Territories.
Friends of the Earth and food distribution organisations are pushing for donors to be exempt from liability, should beneficiaries fall ill from tainted foodstuffs.
Donation programmes try to spell out the risks involved. Fung says the US has a Good Samaritan law (the Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, of 1996) which exempts liability for all except the grossest of negligence when donated food is believed to be given in good faith.
Since March of this year, The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong has donated 60 to 80 pastries each weekday to Foodlink. 'We had plenty of charities approach us to ask if we could donate,' says executive chef Peter Find.
'In the end, we had to select one we found trustworthy. We followed its distribution network and are happy. It's an organisation run completely by volunteers, which I have great respect for.'