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Food waste is hitting the headlines, with consumers, manufacturers and the foodservice sector alike seeking to avoid the social and environmental repercussions – and revenue loss – associated with it. Independent retailers are more vulnerable to wastage due to lower volumes and cut and wrap counter service. “Controlling wastage is extremely important to us here at Slate as wastage eats into our margin, reducing profitability of the business,” explains Clare Jackson, co-owner of Suffolk’s Slate Cheese.
“When you own your own business, it becomes horribly clear that any waste is money; is profit, is your wages,” agrees Philip Wilton of Wildes Cheese.
“Low volume wastage arises when it takes three plus weeks to sell a whole cheese that has only three weeks to go before its end date,” explains Charlie Turnbull, cheese expert at the Academy of Cheese. “For cheese, when the time to sell is a fraction of the period before the end date occurs, wastage drops significantly. The key is to maintain an average sell period for a cheese of less than 75% of its in- counter life; stocking cheeses that routinely butt against their use-by date leads to excess wastage.”
One also needs to be careful to avoid cheeses picking up unwanted moulds from neighbouring cheeses, he says, adding that “Affinage of soft cheese is essential, and protecting ‘vulnerable’ cheeses from white and blue moulds and drying out is also key.” Keeping cheese in great condition is key for the Slate team, too, who “wrap the cut face so that it doesn’t dry out; regularly scraping the cut face with a sharp knife to keep it free of surface mould,” according to Clare.
The Academy of Cheese takes care to remind retailers that while cheese may be ‘in date’ from a quality perspective it can be past its date, so frequent quality checks – covering off shape, appearance and texture – are integral to a healthy cheese counter. Charlie suggests stocking according to seasonal demand, which, as an aside, “makes the number of cheeses in your counter a proxy for how well you are doing as a cheesemonger.”
Smart stocking is a key part of Slate’s anti-wastage arsenal, too: “The volume of our weekly orders is flexed according to time of year, taking account of our expected footfall and also seasonal preferences,” Clare explains. Promotions play a part, too, “As cheeses near their best before or use by date we promote them to push through sales,” she says. “This promotion can involve showcasing on the tasting board and/or price discount.”
Affinage skills are a must, as is daily checking of your cheeses – and staff training can make a big difference, too. Clare agrees; “Keeping wastage to a minimum is the responsibility of the whole team and forms a key part of our training so that everyone keeps an eye on date checking and keeping the cheese in good condition.”
Tasters can have a big impact on cheese waste, explains Charlie. “As well as reducing the quantity of cheese you can sell, they degrade faster than larger pieces of cheese kept in a chiller so have to be replenished frequently.” Plus, consider the impact on the cheese you’re cutting tasting morsels from; “Tasters can mis-shape the cheeses you are taking the cheese from, especially if you are using a knife or scraper to offer a taster,” he explains, “which may mean the cheese has to be trimmed (more wastage) before it can be sold.”
Charlie suggests using scrapers to provide customers with shaving tasters of the cheeses they’d like to try as “they have the least collateral wastage and require personal involvement with the customer.”
What to do with cheese waste
“We rarely get leftover pieces of cheese as we cut exactly what the customer needs from the block,” says Philip, “but should we get any left over it gets grated, frozen and used in cooking (I particularly love macaroni cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches for supper).” As a cheesemaker, Philip has found that whey – rather than retail offcuts – is the most wasted in the cheese world. “Many of us pay a waste management company to take the stuff away,” he says, “but Wildes Cheese has taken many steps to make productive use of this by-product. You can send whey to your local pig farmer as pig food, and if you are lucky you get the odd string of sausages back as payment.
A proper win/win situation – free food for pigs (and money saved) and the free collection of a waste product (and money saved).” The business has also worked with a land reclamation company who pump whey into dead industrial land. “The whey helps restore the natural fertility of the soil,” explains Phil, who continues, “Our most exciting venture to date is working with a gin company using our whey to create a cheeseboard gin… I mean, who wouldn’t?”
Slate’s Clare recalls an important consideration which can all too easily be forgotten: “Throwing cheese away goes against the grain – it’s dreadful to see artisan cheese go in the bin after such care has been taken to make and mature it.”