Can we end food wastage at Iftar buffets?

The eagerness to present endless meals and eat all you can leads to food wastage every year.

Last week a restaurant in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia made it to the news because it announced its newly imposed fines to people who would not finish the food on their plates. The rule has to be seen against a religious background, as Islam speaks out against food wastage.

The Saudi restaurant is not alone in its efforts. In the United Kingdom too people have encountered such fines, this time at a Chinese restaurant. There is a message that wants to be heard; food wastage is not right.

Yet, tonnes of food are wasted every year, and during the Month of Ramadan food wastage is said to increase. As many people consider sharing the Iftar meal as a social gathering, an abundance of food presented is not a luxury. Restaurants and hotels contribute with buffets beyond  imagination, and an all-you-can-eat spirit. If people knew what ‘all they could eat’, maybe less food would go to waste.

“It is all about planning,” says Bobby Krishna, Senior Food Studies and Surveys Officer at the Food Control Department of Dubai Municipality. “A lot of food waste can be avoided by preparing the amount of food needed based on the number of people expected.”

But this mentality might not be easily adopted by luxury hotels, where availability contributes to the hotels’ reputation and where running out of a specific dish would be every manager’s worst nightmare. 

“We would never run out of food, we can guarantee that,” says the manager of a restaurant in Dubai offering a wide range of Iftar dishes on its buffet. “When we expect 50 people, we prepare food for 60 people. The problem with buffets is that once the food is out there, it is considered ‘served food’, which cannot be taken back. “Served food cannot be used for anything other than the customer,” says Bobby. “People might have touched it, just imagine.”

Apart from the rules, restaurants often have their own policy regarding food wastage, even not allowing staff to share what is left at the end of today. “We throw away all food items at the end of the day,” tells an employer of a fully-shelved baker in Dubai, just 30 minutes before closing time.

“I think managers rather stay away from the risks involved in distributing leftover food. The penalty for distributing food that was not good anymore is harsh, it is better to be safe.”

However, the view of containers full of fresh and valuable food is depressing to many. "It's awful and one of the reasons I refuse to eat at hotel buffets,” says Claire Chopin, a French resident in Dubai. “The least they can do is donate the food to the poor, who are dependent on charity initiatives to have their daily meal.”

Marion Koot, a Dutch resident in Abu Dhabi was completely taken aback when a hotel employee refused to share the leftover food with her as he was dumping them into a container. “I have a friend who feeds 425 stray cats per day, and he is in dire need of food for these creatures. He could have easily helped me, but said he was not allowed to do so.”

Although rules regarding food safety may be understandable, there are still things that restaurants can do, thinks Atul Kochhar, a well-known chef who is to open a restaurant in Dubai soon. In a recent interview he advised restaurants to offer the take-away option, which enables people to finish what they have left later at home. Chefs could utilise different parts of food products more and orders can be made more in line with the actual demand, he explains.

Meanwhile customers can be more realistic when they order food, and ask for ingredients to be left out if they do not like these.

Another viable option to reduce food wastage is recycling. This year two mothers initiated a campaign aimed at reducing the amount of food wastage during Ramadan, by urging businesses and individuals to recycle 60 kg of food by the end of August.

According to the ladies 30 per cent of food wastage is recyclable if it is segregated. Mixed with bran and beneficial bacteria this wastage can prove to be a fertiliser, used to produce new crops.

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