Food for thought
Every year, Australians spend more than $100 billion on food and beverages – making up almost half (47 percent) of the nation’s retail turnover. According to the New South Wales Government’s ‘Love Food Hate Waste’ campaign, food retailers like supermarkets and grocery outlets are responsible for the majority of these sales at (61 percent), while the food hospitality sector such as cafés, restaurants and takeaway food outlets contribute to 23 percent.
Out of this $100 billion of purchased food, it is estimated that households throw away about 20 percent. But how much food is wasted in the supermarket before it even reaches the consumer?
The exact value is unknown, but estimates put the food waste of the whole commercial and industrial sector at 1.915 million tonnes, with the food retail and hospitality sectors responsible for the majority. A report by Encycle Consulting in 2012 on commercial and industrial (C&I) waste and recycling by industry, identified that 37 percent of the total waste sent to landfill by food retailers is attributed directly to food waste.
The EPA (Environment Protection Authority) in NSW has said large supermarkets contribute approximately 25 percent of food waste, even though they are already making considerable efforts to reduce stock losses through handling practices and systems for stock control.
Food waste includes both avoidable and unavoidable streams. Love Food Hate Waste has defined unavoidable food waste as items that cannot generally be sold or eaten. Examples include bones, fat and skin, mussel or shellfish shells, teabags and coffee grounds, eggshells, and fruit and vegetable peels, pips and stones. However, most food waste is avoidable. For businesses, this includes stock damaged in transit, handling or storage, and produce that is not used before the ‘sell-by’, ‘use-by’ or ‘best-before’ date. RMIT University research gives the reasons for this as poor stock ordering or stock rotation, or low sales.
“Supermarkets and retail industry peak bodies in Australia recommend that stores should not waste more than four percent of their produce turnover, but data to determine whether this is realistic is thin on the ground.
Supermarket chains and retail industry peak bodies in Australia recommend that stores should not waste more than four percent of their produce turnover; however, data to determine whether this is realistic is thin on the ground. By comparison, the proportion of food lost in the retail sector in the US and UK is between 10 and 13 percent, suggesting four percent is a stretch target for Australian food retailers.
Recently, major Australian supermarkets have begun implementing ‘ugly food’ campaigns, which sell misshapen and blemished produce, which would otherwise have been rejected for aesthetic reasons, at a heavily discounted price. The efficacy of these campaigns in reducing food waste is debated.
Supermarkets may use the campaigns to simply offer lower prices to farmers for ‘less than perfect’ looking produce, rather than actually expanding their purchases to include produce that would otherwise be wasted. In addition, the low price paid for the produce by consumers may lead them to value the food less and therefore be more prone to wasting it in the home. Still the reduction of aesthetic quality standards for fresh produce should increase the amount of food that makes it to market.
Regardless, these campaigns cannot single-handedly tackle the issue of food waste by food retailers. What is needed is a concerted effort that tackles food waste in-store as well as up- and downstream.
So where do retailers and supermarkets that are not addressing the issue of food waste begin?
A simple hierarchy of goals provides a good starting point:
Avoiding food waste is the first step. Retailers can focus on:
- identifying where waste occurs (by undertaking audits) and then targeting high waste areas
- training staff on storing, handling and discounting stock with a goal to reducing damage and spoilage
- improving packaging to reduce damage during transport and storage, and
- addressing aesthetic quality standards to enable more produce to be sold.
Once avoidance has been exhausted, if any food is left over, donating edible food to charity should be the next goal for retailers, and finally recycling any unavoidable waste through composting or conversion to bioenergy.
The retailer’s position at the heart of the supply chain means it also has great potential for influencing and reducing food waste occurring upstream (during processing and delivery by suppliers) and downstream in consumer households. Supplier partnerships and consumer education are key to this.
Despite the above, food retailers still face a number of challenges when tackling food waste. Industry experts note that the mechanisation of food supply logistics has resulted in a general down-skilling of retail staff. According to these experts, today’s food retail staff have less knowledge of the products that they are managing and fewer food handling skills than previous generations. The industry also has high staff turnover, meaning that investment in training must be regular and ongoing.
“Campaigns cannot single-handedly tackle the issue of food waste by food retailers. What is needed is a concerted effort that tackles food waste in-store as well as up- and downstream.
Consumer sentiment and preferences may also be an issue. In 2010, the then chief executive of the Australian Banana Growers’ Council, Tony Heidrich, stated in The Sydney Morning Herald: “A greengrocer was more prepared to accept blemishes on the skin… but the supermarket chains claim shoppers buy with their eyes and prefer their fruit and vegetables with as few blemishes as possible.”
Shifting aesthetic quality standards to include all edible food regardless of appearance must be prioritised. Coupling these standards with consumer education on the nutritional value of blemished and misshapen food, may help also shift consumer behaviours in the right direction.
At the disposal end of the spectrum, some retailers may hold liability concerns over donating food to charity. This has been addressed in some Australian states through the introduction of Good Samaritan legislation, which provides legal protection on health and safety issues when disposing of food for human consumption. An excellent guide has been developed to help retailers donate food by Love Food Hate Waste.
In addition, for retailers seeking to divert unavoidable food waste from landfill, there may be issues in finding appropriate local facilities for organics waste processing.
Despite these challenges, opportunities exist. Retailers can start small and build up their arsenal of food waste avoidance and responsible disposal over time. The benefit won’t just be for the environment, but also the business’ bottom line.
The author, Jenni Downes, is a research consultant at the Institute of Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney