Food waste is a problem on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to start: it’s not just the food in itself, it’s a source of pollution and waste of money, water and labour.
Like all huge issues, it has many concurring causes and almost as many possible solutions. In this special issue I’ll dig a bit deeper into that.
How much food gets wasted?
The answer is problematic. Here you have two examples:
- The United States as a whole waste more than $160 billion in food a year (source USDA).
- The value of wasted food amounts to $680 billion in industrialized countries and S$310 billion in developing countries (source: FAO).
The thing is, all statistics we hear are estimates, and the wider and more comprehensive they want to be, the more prone they are to inaccuracies they are. Here’s a good explanation why:
Sell-by, use-by and best-by dates: it’s a jungle out there
Even when we pay our dues to fact checking and reasonable doubts however, one thing remains: the world wastes a lot of food at any step of the chain.
At its very end, our own kitchens, what plays a bog role is the confusion around expiration dates, especially between best-by and use-by dates. Many people wrongly assume that a product that has passed the best-by date is no longer safe to eat.
The EU has just published a 100-page market study with an in-depth look on date marking:
If you don’t have the time to go through it all, you can read this excellent summary by Cesare Varallo. Here are the main takeaways.
- 10% of the 88 million tons of food waste generated annually in the EU are linked to date marking;
- there is a wide variation in date marking practices among Member States;
- the same product, sometimes even by the very same manufacturer, may have a “best before” date on the food packaging in one country, and a “use-by” date in another;
- some producers apply “use by” date to their own discretion, even when a “best before” would be more appropriate, because they’re not sure whether consumers handle and store food appropriately and don’t want to run any risks;
- perceived expectations of consumers also play a role in which date marking is preferred;
- even storage advice is not always consistent from brand to brand;
- “consume immediately” is still used, although no one knows what that really means.
This confusion is a problem for supermarkets too, which often end up throwing away perfectly edible food because customers don’t want it.
In many supermarkets, it’s common practice to sell nearly expired food at reduced price. In Norway however, there’s a chain that does only that:
Ugly Fruits and Vegetables
Wasting food because of confusion around marking dates is somewhat understandable. What I find baffling though, when the cause is consumers’ rejection of fruits and vegetables that don’t have the perfect shape or colour.
In this case, food waste often happens even higher in the chain: consumers won’t buy imperfect produce from supermarkets, which won’t buy it from farmers, who have no other choice but throwing it away. According to a recent research, the banana is the king of supermarket food waste.
Fortunately, something is moving in that direction, too.
A few years ago, French supermarket chain Intermarché launched a campaign to sell ugly fruits and vegetables. More recently, Morrison’s in the UK did something similar:
And Asda as well:
And here’s an even more radical example, where unwanted food is priced on a pay-as-you-feel basis:
Overall, ugly fruit and vegetables are becoming a trend. Even The Economist took notice:
Don’t buy fruits and vegetable online: here’s why
This article explains why buying produce online is not becoming mainstream: people still prefer to pick it in person from the store. In it, there’s a link to a training video by one of these online groceries start-ups with instructions to hired shoppers on how to select produce. Those instructions are an explicit invitation to ditch ugly fruit and vegetables. So you now have two good reasons not to buy produce online.
What about restaurants?
Restaurants and coffee shops throw away an insane quantity of food too. One start-up, Too Good To Go, found an ingenious way to try and solve this. The app that lets you know in real time whether any restaurant has uneaten food they’re giving away almost for free. Other similar apps have started to come out.
More technology against food waste
Technology is giving a hand too. For example, take a look at 10 different ways start-ups are fighting food waste. And here you have something more futuristic: digestible sensors.
Finally, a borderline way to tackle food waste. It’s a sort of 21st century urban foraging: dumpster diving. Yes, it means exactly what it sounds.