- More developed countries tend to have a larger percentage of their food waste occur at the consumer level compared to developing nations where waste is more likely to occur during production and handling, according to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations that was analyzed by the World Resources Institute.
- Less developed areas tend to have more issues related to factors like poor infrastructure, whereas consumer preference can be more likely to cause waste in the United States and Europe, Brian Lipinski, an associate at the World Resources Institute, told Supply Chain Dive.
- Countries and companies are beginning to take steps to curb food waste. Lipinski pointed to the United Kingdom as an example, which appointed a food waste chief last year. The U.K. has seen its food waste decline by 12% between 2007 and 2015, according to Wrap, an organization that collects data on the U.K.'s waste. The U.S. also has an initiative encouraging companies to reduce food waste by 50% by 2030.
The BCFN Foundation and The Economist Intelligence Unit use the methodology for measuring food waste developed by the FAO to get estimates at a country level in its Food Sustainability Index. The United States had the largest amount of food waste per person and is estimated to have 95.1 kg (about 210 pounds) per person per year of food waste.
While it may be easy to point fingers at picky American consumers as the heart of the problem, there are issues throughout the supply chain. 40% of the waste in North America is caused by something other than the consumer, according to FAO.
At the production level, these losses can be the result of not having enough labor to harvest an entire crop. It can also be the result of retailers placing a premium on quality and deciding to turn away produce that might be "ugly." There can be a secondary market for this unsightly produce — tomato sauce for tomatoes and applesauce for apples — but this doesn't exist for every product.
During transportation, items need to be properly refrigerated and packaged, and items that get held up in customs can go bad if held for long enough, Lipinski said.
Retailers will also order in abundant quantities to ensure their produce sections don't look picked over. "That's just something that they have to order for. And so they're mostly very good at ordering what they need, but it doesn't always play out perfectly," Lipinski said.
One report from ReFed estimates the U.S. spends $218 billion to grow, process, transport and dispose of food that is never eaten. Retailers account for about 8 million tons of waste in the U.S., according to ReFed.
ReFed lays out solutions such as consumer-facing awareness campaigns and a standardized donation strategy. Investments in cold chain management, dynamic routing, better forecasting and inventory management could have the "greatest profit potential" for retailers looking to reduce food waste, according to ReFed's report.
Balancing the desire to decrease food waste with other internal retail metrics like in-stock and quality can be difficult for retailers. As a result, waste-prevention programs are not always the main focus for grocers, the report points out.
Data is another big problem in food waste, Lipinski said. The numbers considered to be the gold standard for worldwide food waste come from the FAO, but the organization has not released new data since 2011. Metrics need to be standardized and tracked on a regular basis to know if improvements are being made, he said.
"One of our major focus areas is on measurement and trying to encourage companies and countries to measure the amount of food loss and waste that are occurring within their own boundaries," he said. "Because as I'm sure you're discovering, there's not very much good data."
All 15 retailers interviewed for the ReFed report have begun some kind of food recovery program, but only about half were "aggressively pursuing prevention." Changing this might be about shifting the focus to the financial benefits of lowering food waste numbers. Those retailers already showing interest in making changes tend to see an economic benefit to lowering the waste, according to Lipinski. ReFed points out, for example, that donations can be claimed as tax deductions.
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