The Future of Food Waste and What Supermarkets Can Do

[This post is an extended version of 5 Things Supermarkets can (and should) do about Food Waste, originally published on The Food Rush]

Food waste is, without question, a HUGE problem.

In the U.S., for example, 40% of the food produced goes uneaten, leading to 160 billion pounds of food waste every year. Globally, food waste is estimated to be 2.9 trillion pounds a year. That’s enough food to feed every hungry person in the world twice over. And yet, food insecurity and hunger still exist in both developed and developing countries.

Though estimates of food insecurity and hunger vary, it is estimated that in the U.S. millions of people are still food insecure. Whether it’s 15.8 million food insecure households, or one in seven people, or 13 million children, it’s clear that we are not equitably distributing the food we produce. The enigmatic coexistence of hunger and food waste is mirrored around the world.

In the developing world, food waste occurs closer to the farm, due to lack of transportation, refrigeration, and storage infrastructure. In the developed world, the waste happens closer to the fork, with food loss occurring at the level of the market, the restaurant, and the home.

The environmental costs in water, energy, seed, and soil amendments to grow food that is not eaten is more than our environment can afford, especially in light of the expected global population of 9.7 billion in 2050. The picking, packing, and shipping costs of wasted foods are considerable. By 2050, with that many mouths to feed and finite resources, we won’t be able to waste either the resources or the food.

How can we have food insecurity and food waste at the same time? That’s a complicated question with no easy answers. What we do know is that while these these two complex, related problems have many diverse causes, they may also have a joint solution: reducing food waste. And supermarkets in particular can help.

The Role of Supermarkets in Creating Food Waste

Supermarkets are partially to blame for the global food waste catastrophe. It is estimated that 10% of the food wasted in America comes from supermarkets, partially due to prepared foods, produce, and meat and dairy with expired sell-by dates. Further, 6 billion pounds of fruits and vegetables go unharvested or unsold annually, mostly because they don’t meet aesthetic standards.

The produce section of the grocery store tends to pile up lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, because marketing research indicates that consumers are more likely to buy, and buy more, when they see huge piles of lovely food. It looks as though supermarkets will continue to generate significant food waste as they concentrate on producing more ready-to-eat foods (think of soup bars and display cases with ready-to-eat wraps and fresh snacks). Though preparing food allows supermarkets to “save” produce, dairy, and meat products that are about to pass their expiration date by making them into ready-to-eat products for their customers, these foods have a very short shelf-life and still often end up as waste.

But this appearance of abundance and convenience comes at a cost. When these fruits, vegetables, and sushi dishes become overripe or spoiled from sitting in the display, supermarkets must get rid of them, often by throwing them in a landfill.

Supermarkets are also responsible for food waste along the supply chain. Farmers, for example, often produce much more than they will be able to sell. This is partially because supermarkets have the power in the relationship, so to meet the standards of quality and aesthetics that supermarkets demand, waste is built into the system to account for losses (e.g., due to pests or weather, during transport, or when products do not meet customer’s aesthetic standards). Demand for perfect-looking products on the retail end can leave producers with no economically viable choice but the landfill.

Though supermarkets are indeed part of the food waste problem, fortunately, supermarkets can also be part of the solution.

What about food banks?

Supermarkets can, and do, donate to food banks. However, food banks have a limited amount of time to turn overripe produce around to food insecure households before it goes bad. Most food banks operate a warehouse system that distributes bulk food to smaller community agencies. The transportation and distribution of food throughout the system from donation, to delivery, to a family’s fridge can take a week or more.

Further, food banks are prohibited from donating food that has passed its expiration date. This means that some products (e.g. dairy) are likely to end up in the trash: there just isn’t enough time for milk and yogurt to make it from supermarkets to supper tables before the expiration date.

Other similar models are popping up, offering alternatives to food banks:

  • Doug Rausch, former president of Trader Joe’s grocery store, recently opened The Daily Table, a discount store that sells about-to-expire fruits and vegetables, surplus food, and healthy prepared meals to low income communities outside of Boston
  • Imperfect is a California startup that buys “ugly” fruits and veggies, and delivers them to homes at relatively low cost
  • The DC Central Kitchen is a nonprofit that trains chefs and provides meals to the surrounding community. Much of what they use is food that would have otherwise been wasted

These community-based models can be replicated more broadly to help redistribute food. But, it will still take a nationwide effort to make an impact on food waste using these hard-to-scale models.

Food Expiration Dates

Supermarkets have significant power to impact food waste in other ways. One of the most critical is the current system of sell-by dates and expiration dates. Confusion about what the dates mean for food safety causes a great deal of healthy food to be thrown away. There are no federal standards for expirations dates (except for baby formula). That means that the dates we see on our food products are a manufacturer’s best guess of optimal freshness or taste. (It’s worth noting that some states in the U.S. have mandates for dairy products and meat — a specific amount of time from butchering or pasteurization — but these standards vary wildly from state to state, and are not always based in science).

With all this confusion and lack of consistency, consumers often wrongly assume that food past the date on the label is unhealthy or unsafe, and throw it away. Sell-by dates are additional piece of this confusing puzzle. Sell-by dates are a business to business communication between the food producer and the supermarket, meaning that they do not have to be visible to consumers. But when they are, consumers may misunderstand them as expiration dates, and subsequently throw food away unnecessarily.

And the confusion doesn’t end there! Best-by dates are also often found on products. These, however, tend to be just for marketing purposes. What consumers need is to know whether their food is safe safe to eat. Unfortunately, this information is not consistently or accurately available in supermarkets today.

Supermarkets need to play a role in standardizing this information, and presenting it to consumers is accurate, easily understood formats.

Collaborative Efforts to Reduce Food Waste

Supermarkets alone cannot solve this problem, and are already looking to partner and collaborate to broaden their impact. For example, supermarkets have been addressing food waste through cooperative study: the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, an initiative that touts many retailers as members, is studying the use of analytics and data to prevent food waste.

Also, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has developed a global initiative on food loss and waste reduction. In partnership with stakeholders throughout the food supply chain, including supermarkets, this initiative is developing wide-ranging programs to address food waste at the source.

Supermarkets can also involve consumers to collaboratively reduce food waste For example, many supermarkets are now featuring imperfect fruits and vegetables at discounted rates alongside marketing that explains how to use these products in prepared foods. Smaller containers for in-store salad and soup bars, and clearly labeled options for consumers to compost leftovers can also help.

Finally, supermarkets can encourage consumers to buy fresh-frozen produce, which produces less waste from farm to store, and can be a cost effective way to add fruits and vegetables to the diet.

Retail Food Waste in the Developing World

The complexity of food waste in the developing world presents a different set of challenges, and supermarkets may have less of a role to play in creating solutions.

Part of the challenge is cultural. In some countries, women have constrained social roles, and may not be able to adequately market or participate in decision-making for the agricultural products they produce. Initiatives that empower women, such as agricultural co-ops, are being developed, but cultural change is slow.

Retailers and manufacturers who have significant power and resources can help to build infrastructure such as storage facilities and transportation infrastructure along the supply chain to reduce waste. In Africa and Latin America, for example, organizations are making instructions and materials to build family-sized metal grain and legume silos available to farmers. Food for the Cities is another global education and resource sharing initiative that is specifically looking at city-based food systems.

No Easy Answers

Food waste is a complex problem, but the power and reach of supermarkets can help to implement meaningful solutions. Some initiatives may be simple changes at each step along the food supply chain, such as empowering farmers with more reasonable produce contracts, championing the use of proper dating and packaging, donating food in time for it to be safely used, and working with consumers and other industry players to develop and implement new solutions.

If taken collectively by supermarkets around the world, these steps will have a significant and lasting impact on reducing food waste.

[This post is an extended version of 5 Things Supermarkets can (and should) do about Food Waste, originally published on The Food Rush]

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