Science - January 26, 2012

Food waste is hard to combat

In spite of world hunger, astronomical quantities of food end up on the rubbish tip. An intractable problem. Attempts to tackle it run up against wasteful consumer behaviour, under-priced food and over-the-top safety regulations.

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If you are an average Dutch person, you threw away roughly 44 kilos of food last year. This included 7 kilos of bread, 5 kilos of dairy produce and 5 kilos of fruit and vegetables. Still sitting comfortably? This represents 10 percent of all the food you buy, worth hundreds of euros. And consumers are not the only squanderers: Dutch industry, retailers and catering outlets waste mountains of food too. The sorry result is that 30 to 50 percent, worth four billion euros, goes uneaten (see text box). Meanwhile, 2010 statistics on global hunger show that 925 million went hungry, the world population is set to rise from seven to nine billion by 2050, and increasing numbers of people are adopting western eating habits. We can safely assert that waste is a problem.
Luckily, I waste less than the average, you are probably thinking. You are in good company with this comforting thought. Research shows that almost everyone thinks they throw out less than average. It seems that consumers do feel guilty about food waste, but that doesn't solve the problem, says Erica van Herpen, assistant professor of Marketing and Consumer Behaviour. ‘One research shows that consumers feel guilty about waste and intend to improve their score on that point. But in the end, their guilt feelings do not lead to a reduction in waste.'
Shopping habits are a better predictor of waste levels. Consumers who keep an eye on their store cupboards and go shopping armed with a shopping list waste less than people without such routines. Other ‘thrifty' habits are storing food properly and not cooking too much at a time. Given that the intention to waste less does not lead to more careful behaviour, there is not much point in trying to induce such feelings. Nor is there much future in financial incentives such as taxes on garbage, says Van Herpen. ‘People just compress their garbage more firmly, or they even start dumping illegally.'
Mild paternalism
Besides from bad planning, another cause of waste is the confusion that has arisen around shelf-life dates on food, notes Toine Timmermans, research coordinator at Food & Biobased Research. There are two kinds of date. A use-by date is found on highly perishable fresh products such as steak tartare. This is the last date on which it is safe to eat the food. On other fresh productions such as milk and non-perishable goods, there is a sell-by date or a ‘best before' date. This means the manufacturer guarantees the quality up to that date. But, depending on the product, it is often edible for days or even weeks after this date. Many consumers go by the best-by date and research has shown that consumers who interpret it too strictly throw out more food than consumers who trust their noses and their taste buds.
So more clarity about these dates could cut waste. But there is scope for improvement in other areas too. Van Herpen believes most in facilitating: ‘Nudging people in the right direction, for example.' This ‘mild paternalism' means making avoiding waste the easiest option. Van Herpen: ‘An example would be the right portion size in packages, so that people do not waste food because the portions are too big.' Such paternalism would not necessarily have to come only from the government. Creative small companies could make money out of things like smartphone apps for smart stock management and shopping lists.
But beneath all these practical causes of waste lies a fundamental problem, says Ynte van Dam, assistant professor of Marketing and Consumer Behaviour: ‘The bottom line is that food is too cheap.' In developing countries people spend fifty percent or more of their income on food. For us, this figure is around 10 percent. That makes it cheap to waste, and in the food industry it can even be logical to do so. After all, food is cheaper than labour or fuel. ‘Maybe the problem lies deeper than that', adds Van Dam. ‘Since the nineteen fifties, the whole economy has been based on waste.' It is now common practice to treat the things we buy as disposable and to discard them as soon as they go out of fashion. Van Dam: ‘So can you expect people to be thriftier with their food than they are with their mobile phone?'
Industrial waste
Van Dam does think that a disproportionate amount of the blame gets laid at the feet of consumers, though. ‘A lot of wastage happens in the chain. It happens during transportation, at the wholesaler, during processing and to a lesser extent on the farm.' Toine Timmermans works on combatting food waste throughout the chain. He says that until a few years ago this problem was low on the agenda in the business world. This was down to a lack of insight and the feeling that there was no big problem. ‘Until it became clear that in the Netherlands billions of euros' worth of food was being destroyed. Since then, sustainability and efficient use of resources has become an important theme.'
Driven by economic motives, industry is now increasingly paying attention to waste, Timmermans observes. Throwing away food is inefficient and expensive. What is more, companies are watching with alarm the increasing fluctuations in the prices of raw materials.
There are many sides to food waste in the industry. On the one hand, there is overproduction, mainly due to an inaccurate idea of the demand. Then, food gets lost during processing, for example when a switch is made to another product on the production line. When food is badly packaged, whether wrongly labelled or in damaged packaging, no one wants, or is allowed, to buy it. Timmermans helps companies prevent this kind of loss, which he reckons many of them could quite easily reduce by 20 percent. But to really make an impact, all the chain players would have to collaborate on making changes throughout the chain. Timmermans: ‘That often means that you have to invest somewhere other than where the profits will be made.' To support companies in these sorts of innovations throughout the chain, an extensive research project has recently been started in which the food industry, supermarkets and knowledge institutions will collaborate within the Food & Nutrition Top Institute.
Clashing norms
No one is actually in favour of wasting food, of course. Food waste often results from contradictory customs or rules. The catering industry is a perfect illustration of this, with the balancing act it maintains between food safety, customer-friendliness and - a relatively new value - reducing waste. For example, it is just not done to say no to a customer. Ideally, you want to offer complete menus, giving customers the widest possible choice right up until closing time. Then there are hygiene rules which forbid you to sell food more than two hours after defrosting it. For fear of sick customers and damage to their own image, companies often build in an extra safety margin. Many food processing companies adhere to much stricter rules that the law requires. For example, in 2008 the EU scrapped some of the absurdly detailed ‘aesthetic' criteria for fruit, best-known from the ‘euro-myth' that there were guidelines for the correct curve on a banana. But many of these norms survive in the food industry, because it based its entire classification- and production system on them. Therefore we still waste large amounts of less beautiful vegetables and fruits. A practice which journalist-activist Tristram Stuarts painfully visualizes in his book Waste.
The problem of food waste is a many-headed monster. There is therefore no easy or fast solution to it. Combatting parts of the problem reduces waste little by little and the problem is being pondered in many places. Less waste means savings for companies and less uncertainty in times when food prices sometimes fluctuate wildly. The government wants to reduce food waste by 20 percent by 2015 as well. And perhaps consumers are beginning to see the problem. Whether they see it as the hundreds of euros we throw away in the form of good food, the needless CO2 emissions or the people who starve while we heedlessly discard food... An interesting thought for the next time a bruised apple is chucked in the bin.
Food waste in figures
Precise estimates of food waste levels vary widely. In May 2011, the UN food organization FAO published a literature study Global Food Losses and Food Waste. Worldwide, says the report, we waste a breath-taking 1.3 billion tons of food: one third of what is produced. The FAO's definition of ‘waste' is: food produced for human consumption that is not eaten by humans. So this includes considerable amounts of food that are put to good use in animal feeds or in fermenters. The researchers did not count inedible parts such as bones and skins. Looking at Europe we see that the continent produced about 900 kilograms of food per person per year. According to the FAO, we waste 200 to 300 kilograms of this food. The consumer is responsible for 95 to 115 kilograms of this. An experiment by the research bureau CREM suggest that this is an overestimation. The researchers rooted through the garbage bins of 110 household and calculated that the average Dutch person wastes 44 kilograms. The authors of the FAo report also admit that their study is largely based on rough estimates and guesswork. Future research will have to provide more complete and precise data.
Which kinds of foods are we most careless with in Europe? The FAO calculates that one third of all grain, in bread for instance, goes uneaten. The same is true of 50 percent of all tubers and root vegetables (i.e. potatoes, chiefly), and 45 percent of all fruit and vegetables. We are much more efficient with animal products. ‘Only' 20 percent of all the meat and 30 percent of all the fish we buy goes uneaten. And top of the list for efficiency is dairy produce. A ‘mere' 12 percent of all our milk is wasted.

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