In 2005, an Austrian documentary called “We Feed The World” brought food policy issues onto the agenda for many Europeans, showing stark pictures of many contradictions in our current food system. One particular focus of the movie was on the retail sector and the mountains of bread, packaged goods and produce that were thrown out daily because they had expired despite still being of high quality. This enraged many consumers and rallied them against a seemingly wasteful distribution and management system – however, if you peek behind the curtains, the issue becomes more complex. Retailer strategies vary (also by region) and do contribute to food waste, as we will talk about later, but for now consider this: in the EU, the wholesale and retailing sector only contributed to 5% of food waste in 2010, whereas the consumers at household level contributed 42%. In Germany, a separate study found that private households were even responsible for 61% of all food waste. In the US, in 2008 in-store losses amounted to 10% of total food supply at retail level; the losses of consumers and food service operations combined were around 19% of the total food supply, amounting to nearly double the waste at retail level. These numbers point to the fact that summed personal decisions can have just as or even greater impacts than few big policies in tackling the issues – I’ll cover that in a fourth and last post, however.
An argument why European retailers in particular seem to have relatively low food waste numbers is that any waste at this level cuts directly into their profit rate, and thus economic incentives drive the optimization of the retailing process. However, mindsets and expectations do have an important impact, as does the relative low value of food in general, on the existence of any waste at all. This mindset problem stood out to me in a report on the US system, where a former president of an important food retailing business was cited as saying “the reality as a regional grocery manager is, if you see a store that has really low waste in its perishables, you are worried. If a store has low waste numbers it can be a sign that they aren’t fully in stock and that the customer experience is suffering.”
Consumer expectations of constantly stocked shelves, freshly baked bread until 5 minutes before closing time, and continued availability of convenience food leads to situations where much of the not-so-fresh food has to be discarded (rotisserie chickens for example are cited as having a shelf life of only 4 hours). In addition, the assumption that consumers prefer to buy from overflowing shelves leads to overstocking especially of produce, with the items on the bottom suffering damage from the weight. Uniform, too large pack sizes at delivery are another cause for overstocking – say, a small grocer only wants 50 grapefruits, but one crate packs 80 and so he is stuck with the additional 30.
The labeling of items with “Sell by” dates could warrant a whole post in itself – according to industry experts, an average US supermarket discards $2,300 of expired items daily, of which almost all are still consumable, because their sale could hurt the store image of selling fresh products. And finally, items with damaged packaging or other aesthetic issues are often pulled from the shelves though neither food quality or safety is affected. Yet, as we saw, the overall impact is not so bad, right?
However, what the numbers don’t tell you is the indirect influences of the retail sector both upstream and downstream of the supply chain. We already discussed the culling practices which weed out cosmetically imperfect products during the production and processing phase. But the high level of waste at consumer level is also related to retailer practices – Buy-One-Get-One-Free offers, bulk offers and other quantity-based promotions directly encourage overpurchasing of food items that then cannot be consumed in time. Impulse buy strategies similarly lead consumers to purchase things they did not want in the first place when entering the supermarket. We will see what these purchasing decisions lead to next time.
Now, how can we solve the retail-level food waste issue? Some suggestions include:
- Donations of nominally expired, but still edible items to food banks and local coops – my old university, McGill, actually had a vegan volunteer-run donation-based lunch service (shout-out to Midnight Kitchen!) and we got nearly all our produce from retailers for free.
- Often, expired products are reused as animal feed or composting material – not ideal, but better than developing greenhouse gases in a landfill.
- The practice of dumpster diving has emerged as an individualistic way of combatting food waste – activists sift through commercial or waste and forage for goods that can still be used or consumed (the practice has come to Germany recently!). Check out freeganism if you are interested in the ideological background.
- Instead of buy-one-get-one-free, half-off promotions are more effective in getting rid of excess stock. Other stores have started buy-one-get-one-later or buy-one-give-one-free programs.
One thing you can do: Already in the grocery store, consider carefully the quantities of products you are buying – are you sure your household can consume so much before it goes bad? If not, it might be cheaper to go for the smaller item – even if it is more expensive per kg, you won’t have paid for food you are throwing out.
I took most of the information for this post from the NRDC Research Paper Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40 Percent of its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill, the Preparatory Study on Food Waste Across EU 27, and the German Advisory Council on the Environment’s 2012 Umweltgutachten – all great and very exhaustive resources on the issue.
Top image by Flickr user Beanbag America, via Flickr CC.