Minimizing food waste

Every time a product goes through a quality control, gets transported to a consumer not all the production will be accepted. For instance, you produce bolts and nuts for a manufacturing company. You have some waste yourself due to imperfect shapes, inventory mistakes and such then sell your “good” products. During the transport and the receiving audit your customer will consider some more product to be unsuitable for sale, have its own quality and inventory issues and so on all along the supply chain until the end consumer.

Your bolt will stand there

See where I am going? Every single one of those interfaces generate waste at each stage like gateways or a funnel. Let me tell you a bit more about it

The example of the food industry and its waste:

The awareness of food waste among the populace makes this a perfect example to understand the extent of this issue. It is very interesting to see that the waste hot spots are located at each interface throughout its logistics and transport meaning finding a solution will be easier.

Think about the farmer producing oranges, some will be wasted as they are not fit for travelling to the customer. Then the latter will sort the products according to its own standards, removing oranges that are off, oddly shaped or the ones which are too small or too big. You may have a few buyers before comes the supermarket such as a central buyer or a supermarket distribution centre. The DC will have different requirements and so on until the picky customer decides to discard some and the oranges reach your kitchen counter where some may be left to rot again… Sad story right?

Well that is how we waste a third of the food produced for human consumption with developed countries playing a bigger part. Countries that lack infrastructure would waste most of the food during processing or distribution and in their case infrastructure investments would help. The greenhouse gas emissions of food waste would rank just behind the US and China. There are disparities in what food items are wasted too

The below chart shows a fruit and vegetable waste audit

Global food production and the food loss during transit and distribution in 2013

It seems quite obvious on this chart that bananas, items with high green house gas emissions, are the most wasted food. Before they reach your home they could have travelled more than 4300 miles (7000km) if you are living in Europe. According to a Swedish study, many the wasted bananas are perfectly edible bananas but slightly brown.

Where is it wasted the most?

Supermarkets have very strict quality/shape standards for their fruits and vegetable section showing consumers a biased reality of what fruits and vegetables look like.

The consumer side:

My Parisian upbringing has not instilled in me the knowledge of agriculture or gardening. I am used to seeing orange carrots, purple aubergines and red/dark red tomatoes. Thankfully, farmers market are everywhere in the capital and my dear asian shops have shown me white aubergines, white sweet potatoes, mushrooms in all shapes and texture and bruised bananas being sold. Ask the kids when was the last time they ate vegetables that were not from supermarkets or show them a purple carrot and you will see a glimpse of the “normal” looking food issue. The first carrots to be grown were purple and the orange ones you eat come from white and yellow ones and potatoes came in all colours too, even blue so your fries can look a lot more interesting than they currently do! Consumers’ views of normal looking crops have evolved making it harder to reconcile wasted food and their requirements.

The supermarket monopoly:

Simple things like weather conditions can heavily affect what crops looks like which is not necessarily linked to their taste. Tesco sold Spanish green clementines after the production suffered a heatwave. This is an exemple you see but there are plenty of products that will simply not make it to the shelves.
While supermarkets seem to be helping out the farmers by buying odd looking fruits and vegetables, it is important to remember that they are such big players in the industry, that they can still decide to buy from whichever producer can make the most perfect and cheapest crop hence an underlying war for perfection. In a study, 63 to 87% of tomatoes were wasted due to being imperfectly shaped or the market prices being too low.

The waste can also be due to low prices making it less profitable to pick the crops and sell them than let them rot on the fields. The decrease in French milk prices has for instance encouraged farmers to throw away their milk rather than loose money by driving down prices in supplying more goods.

The recent spur in imperfect produce and food waste initiatives such as too good to go or love food hate waste has increased food waste awareness. Nonetheless the “normal” ones still look like they have been moulded to a perfect shaped vegetable.  One day the two stalls may be merged and the peppers will just become … peppers. It has also made consumers think about the strict EU and supermarket restrictions that forces farmers to throw away a big portion of their crop and maybe more open to buy imperfect goods.

Those green businesses incentives are to encourage their consumers to waste less food but that is assuming that they see the problem and according to a study by a YouGov for Sainsbury’s (not the most unbiased study ) shows that British families heavily downplay their part in wasting food and how much it costs them.

I believe that some actors of the food industry can enhance their image by standing out as waste warriors so in the next article I will advise few steps to take to close the gaps of supplier-customer expectations that can lead to heavy waste as the exemple of food waste in supermarket and household showed us.


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