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It seems odd that food waste is being considered an epidemic when the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reports in their State of Food Insecurity in the World 20141 , that 795 million people are estimated to be chronically undernourished. On a positive note, this number has fallen to 11.3% globally but the fact is that in both developed and developing nations, food is being wasted instead, of being provided to those in need or for animals that can produce food.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that by 2075 there will be 9.5 billion people to feed. In 2013, the Institute of Mechanical Engineers from the United Kingdom published a report, “Global Food, Waste Not, Want Not”2 where they determined that globally, 4 billion metric tonnes of food is produced each year, but that about 30-50% (1.2-2 billion metric tonnes) isn’t consumed by people or food animals. 

Supply chain waste

In the third world and developing countries, poor harvesting, transportation, infrastructure and storage are the primary causes of food waste. In developed countries, the problems are different. Retailers/wholesalers will reject food because it does not meet the specifications of their customers. Generally, these are quality defects such as size and appearance. Globally, the estimated amount of waste attributed to this is 1.6 million tonnes of food. “FAO estimates that over 40 per cent of root crops, fruit and vegetables are lost wasted, along with 35 per cent of fish, 30 per cent of cereals and 20% of oilseeds, meat and dairy products”. According to the FAO, the North America/Oceania breakdown of Fruit and Vegetable waste is as follows: 14.5 million tonnes at production (farm level), 2.4 million tonnes at processing, 0.9 million tonnes at distribution, 4.2 million tonnes at retail and 11.1 million tonnes at consumption.3 

Households waste most

Unfortunately, the real problem in developed nations is that the customer disposes of 30-50% of what they purchase from retailers/wholesalers. By comparison, it was estimated that supermarkets in UK account for 1.3% of food waste and overall retail/wholesalers in the European Union (EU) account for 5% of food waste. Meanwhile, households in the EU account for 42% of food waste. While having some of the least wasteful retailers in the EU, the UK also has the highest quantity of food waste. Some of this is associated with farmers being unable to sell product, because it doesn’t meet the rigorous quality standards.

US EPA announces action

This is not just an EU issue, as on 16 September 2015 the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) announced a food waste reduction goal of 50% by 2030.4 They stated that food waste in the US accounts for 31% or 133 billion pounds of the food supply. Reducing food waste in the US by 15% would provide enough food for more than 25 million people. An additional issue is that the food waste is placed in landfill sites, which generate the third largest source of methane, a gas that affects climate change. As in the EU, most of the food waste is at household level and most of the activity to reduce food waste is at the retailer/wholesale level. USDA/EPA estimate that the average US family throws away $1,500 USD, or 2 million calories of food per year.

Education in action

In Australia, it is reported that the average household throws out 1 in every 5 bags of groceries purchased.5 Every year, four million tonnes of food ends up in landfill. While the major retailers are striving to produce zero waste by donating food waste, the real effort in Australia has been centred on teaching the public how to reduce waste. This is done by teaching people to buy ‘ugly’ food and utilising the waste as part of the energy stream. There is an effort through the university system to research solutions and provide information to the government and public in an effort to reduce food waste. Campaigns encouraging people to eat “ugly” food and for retailers to provide it, at a discounted rate, are part of the effort to reduce waste before it reaches the consumer.

Changing retail requirements

In France, 7.1 million tonnes of food is wasted each year. It is estimated that 67% of waste is from consumers, 15% from restaurants and only about 11% from retailers. As a result of media attention to this problem, France’s parliament decided to resolve the issue by requiring retailers not to destroy unsold food, but give it to charity, or place it within the animal feed industry. While this law, when, or if implemented, may have some affect on the food waste stream, the retail and distribution areas of the food supply chain provide the least amount of waste. Hence, the overall impact of this legislation, whilst having good intentions, will probably have minimal positive effect on the overall waste stream. However, it may actually have a negative effect, because retailers will ensure that they purchase only food that they can sell, instead of losing money by donating it, or through fines for waste disposal. Retailers may also issue more stringent quality standards, leaving more food in the fields, not to be sold to consumers.

While a majority of efforts are focused on donating food, or ensuring that food waste is placed back in the food chain through the animal feed industry, there are initiatives that could go beyond food donation and recovery. For example, sustainability assessments of operations and increasing the shelf life of processed foods, ensuring that the transportation chain is faultless to provide the maximum shelf life. In addition, ensuring that food safety plans are correct, so that food doesn’t require recall or disposal, as well as producing and testing food for compliance to the destination country’s food regulations to ensure it is not rejected or disposed at a country’s border.

For further information, please contact:

Jim Cook
Food Scientific and Regulatory Affairs Manager
SGS North America, Inc.
t: +1 973 461 1493

Reference:

1 The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2014
2 Global Food Waste Not, Want Not
3 Don’t knock ‘ugly food’ campaigns – they help the fight against waste
4 USDA and EPA Join with Private Sector, Charitable Organizations to Set Nation's First Food Waste Reduction Goals
5
UNEP Think.Eat.Save campaign in Australia