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Fresh produce has so far assumed the “unofficial face” of food waste simply because it is the most bulky and, hence, the most visible. Unlike protein foods such as meat and fish, fruits and vegetables are not what a meal tends to be centred around, at least not in developed countries, and so they often languish, half forgotten, in the bottom of the fridge. But while fresh produce trumps food waste in volume terms, where value and environmental impact are concerned, it is an entirely different story – it is animal protein foods like meat and fish that leave the biggest footprint.
In 2014, USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) published a report stating that 31% of the food available for consumption in the US at retail and consumer level went uneaten. And although meat (including poultry) and fish only made up 12% of the weight of the total, they accounted for 30% of the value. According to WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme), the global value of waste at the consumer end alone amounts to over US$400 billion annually.
For consumers, food waste is not just an economic but also an emotive issue. In an age when their aspirations to conduct their lives in a more environmentally sustainable way are increasingly impacting shopping habits, the issue of food waste is becoming ever more unpalatable.
Meat and fish production take a heavy toll on the environment in multiple ways. A study published in August 2015 by the European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC) points out that meat waste accounted for “the largest avoidable food waste footprint”, based on the rationale that it was so resource-intensive to produce that even a small reduction in meat waste equated to a significant reduction in wasted water and nitrogen.
Water scarcity is a major challenge for agriculture at a global level, while nitrogen is a key component of the fertilisers which are used to grow crops that are turned into animal feed. Nitrogen run-off leads to the eutrophication of lakes and rivers, to mention just one negative consequence.
Fish and seafood sourcing is equally beset by controversy. Overfishing, for example, has left many wild fish stocks too severely depleted to ever recover, while aquaculture counts as a major contributor to coastal water pollution.
Furthermore, food production as a whole is known to play a significant part in climate change. According to WRAP, 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions are accounted for by food waste. If appropriate waste reduction measures were taken, the organisation estimates that by 2030 emissions could feasibly be reduced by one billion tonnes of CO2 per year, which is equivalent to Germany’s total annual CO2 emissions.
The aforementioned JRC study makes the point that 80% of waste at consumer level is avoidable. The core strategies for waste reduction at consumer level revolve around dissuading consumers from buying excess quantities of food in the first place and educating them in matters of food storage in order to delay/prevent potential spoilage.
To aid consumers in their efforts, USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service launched FoodKeeper in April 2015. Developed jointly with Cornell University and the Food Marketing Institute, FoodKeeper is an application that offers consumers information spanning 400 food and beverage items, including advice on correct storage, including freezing, and it even reminds consumers to consume the foods they have purchased before they spoil.
Consumers, however, want to be reassured that they are not the only ones expected to make an effort. FAO statistics show that, in volume terms, the production to retailing end of the supply chain generates anywhere between three-quarters to two-thirds of food waste in North America, Oceania, Europe and industrialised Asia. As retailers are the interface between producers and the end consumer, their waste reduction efforts tend to be the most visible from the consumer’s perspective.
Retailers have been criticised in the past for running “buy one get one free” promotions on highly perishable items because a sizeable proportion of these would end up being discarded. Admittedly, this is more of a problem for fresh fruits and vegetables than it is for meat or fish, where the surplus is destined for the home freezer rather than being tossed in the bin.
Many consumers rely on such deals to stock up on meat and fish as these are among the most expensive items on their weekly grocery bill. Retailers can support consumers’ money-saving strategies by ensuring that any bulk-purchase-based special offers in the meat and fish categories are suitable for home freezing, clearly identified as such on the label, as well as suitably packaged.
Besides continuously working on cutting not only their own in-store wastage but also that of their entire supply chain by obliging suppliers to have waste curbing protocols in operation, retailers are also in a prime position to help educate consumers on the fact that not all waste is created equal, and that minimising the spoilage of the food types that are most resource-intensive to produce, like meat and fish, represents an important step towards sustainable consumption behaviour.