Waste Reduction High on the Fresh Produce Agenda

In a global environment of ongoing economic recession and high food prices, the reduction of wastage is once again assuming a position of high priority. In 2010, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) commissioned a new piece of research, the findings of which were published in spring 2011 in a report entitled Global Food Losses and Food Waste. According to this report, around one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted on a global basis, amounting to 1.3 billion tonnes annually.

The issue is not only that wasted food represents a “slap in the face” for millions of people forced to go hungry every day, but also that it is a major waste of resources, for example water and energy, and therefore food waste counts as a key contributor to climate change-accelerating greenhouse gas emissions.

Fresh produce is particularly prone to spoilage, with wastage occurring throughout the supply chain. In developing countries, although food waste at consumer level is minimal, significant losses occur due to inadequate infrastructure, lack of appropriate storage and processing facilities and broken or entirely non-existent cold chains.

In developed countries, much more food goes to waste at the consumer end. In Europe, the heat is now on to reduce food waste. According to European Commission data, up to 50% of food is wasted in the European Union, amounting to 89 million tonnes per annum and 179kg per capita. By 2020, this is projected to soar to 126 million tonnes.

In response to these unsettling figures, the European Parliament called upon its Member States in January 2012 to improve the efficiency of food supply and consumption chains. 2014 is being proposed as the “European year against food waste”. The European Commission estimates that, within the EU, households account for 42% of food wastage, manufacturers 39%, the catering industry 14% and retailers around 5%.

UK-based organisation Waste Reduction Action Plan (WRAP), which encourages retailers, manufacturers and consumers to reduce their waste output, estimates that fresh fruit and vegetables account for around 40% of UK household food waste, a figure which is likely to be mirrored by other industrialised countries.

Improved packaging equals less waste

And while statistics would seem to corroborate this, at least in developed economies, consumers are among the major culprits when it comes to waste generation, while retailers, by virtue of being public-facing, are probably the most frequent targets of criticism. For this reason, waste reduction protocols tend to play an integral part in retailers’ sustainability and CSR strategies.

For example, as part of its Plan A (“because there is no Plan B”) sustainability strategy, Marks & Spencer, the UK’s 12th ranked grocery retailer by value sales in 2010, has been reported as being the first retailer in the country to integrate an ethylene-absorbent strip into its strawberry packs, intended to boost the fruits’ shelf life by up to 50%. The technology itself is not new – it has long been employed in transit packaging – but it is a novel feature on retail shelves as of the beginning of 2012.

Marks & Spencer stated that the new packaging would lead to at least a 4% waste reduction, equating to 40,000 packs of strawberries during peak season, and the fruits would also keep longer post-purchase, aiding consumers in reducing household wastage. The company intends to roll out the new packaging across its entire fresh berries portfolio in 2012.

Marks & Spencer’s position as a premium-end retailer, heavily focused on high quality, ready-to-eat and/or ready-to-cook foods, means that the company is in an excellent position to introduce this kind of pricey packaging innovation. Towards the other end of the spectrum, Asda, owned by Wal-Mart Stores Inc and ranking as the UK’s second largest grocery retailer, whose primary focus is on price competitiveness, has reportedly also been trialling ethylene-absorbent packaging. In the end, however, the company decided against using this technology on the grounds of cost.

However, if more retailers did start to adopt this new type of packaging – a likely development among high-end grocers – economies of scale are bound to bring down the price, creating a new industry standard for highly perishable fresh produce items.

Helping consumers to minimise waste

Not only are retailers constantly under much pressure to curb their own wastage, but they are also expected to educate consumers as to how to minimise waste post purchase. Tackling this issue, the Co-operative Group, the UK’s fourth-ranked grocery retailer, includes storage instructions on its fruit and vegetable fresh produce bags, including those intended for loose items. Morrisons is another major UK retailer providing this kind of information on its fresh produce labelling.

In addition, where perishable items are concerned, the Co-operative Group has switched its promotional offerings strategy from the customary “buy one get one free” (BOGOF) to half-price offers in order not to tempt consumers into buying far more than they can possibly use. Retailers have often been criticised for “pushing their wastage onto consumers” when offering BOGOF deals on highly perishable products, and hence this practice is on the verge of falling into disrepute as we are moving into a more waste-conscious era.

Recession a threat to fresh produce on grounds of wastage

UK government figures published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) reveal that for lower-income households, fresh fruit and vegetable consumption fell by 30% between 2006 and 2010. This means that the average per capita intake of fresh fruit and vegetables in lower- income households has fallen to just 2.7 portions a day, marginally more than half the recommended intake in the UK.

As the recession continues to bite, consumers, even those in affluent countries, can no longer afford to waste food as they did before, making them far more receptive to waste reduction strategies. Now really is the time for retailers and fresh produce players to push relevant information, such as the optimisation of storage conditions, recipes using overripe fruit and leftovers, as well as try to get consumers to consider switching to frozen produce, which is a far better option than giving up fruit and vegetables altogether.

A study carried out by the British Frozen Food Federation (BFFF) in 2010 concluded that meals cooked from frozen rather than fresh ingredients generated 36% less waste and also turned out to be 33% cheaper. The BFFF’s data suggest that potatoes and vegetables account for 24% of food waste in British households, while meat and fish account for just 13%. Items like frozen peas and carrots are already a staple in most households, but the uptake of more premium items, like frozen berries, could be significantly improved.

The time has come to revise standards and labelling practices

It is not all about consumer education and high-tech packaging, however. Retailers, despite not actually being the leading source of fresh food waste in the supply and consumption chain, still have a major impact on other parts of this chain. For instance, Tristram Stuart, author of Waste – Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (2009), found in his research that British supermarkets rejected between 20-40% of farmers’ produce, often on purely aesthetic grounds. Such rejected produce, for example, could include carrots which simply were not straight enough to allow consumers to peel down their entire length in one single stroke with a vegetable peeler.

This begs the question – have retailers indeed gone way too far in their standard setting practices? The recession may present the turning point at which produce which would previously have been regarded as “flawed” to once again be allowed to reach the shelves, resulting in lower prices for consumers and less wastage for supermarkets and farmers.

Another issue which has long been a bone of contention is the use of “sell by” and “display until” dates. These are applicable to retailers’ stock management and there is no need for consumers to be exposed to this (for them) irrelevant and potentially confusing information, leading many to disregard and discard items which are still perfectly good and safe to consume. And, ignoring legal requirements for the sake of the argument, even “use by” dates are somewhat redundant on most items of fresh produce as consumers can judge for themselves whether a fruit or vegetable is still fit for consumption or not.

In the spirit of minimising wastage, then, any dates in excess to legal requirements simply ought not to appear on the label. For stock control purposes, the necessary information could be stored electronically or, preferably, retail staff should receive adequate training on how to assess whether a fresh produce item is in a good enough condition to remain on the shelf.