America's Food Waste Problem

America's Food Waste Problem

June 12, 2013
Business SkillsCommunications

By Kimberly O'Hara
The Food Journal

Food waste has become one of those “hot topics” with many players getting into the act of defining, cutting and solving. In the developed countries, like the U.S., the problem is significant and the cause differs from that of developing countries where there is often little food preservation and collection and much food is lost in transit to the market. In the U.S., it is estimated that 40% of all food produced is wasted. “The National Resource Defense Council estimates that about 40 percent of all food here in the United States goes uneaten – that’s about $165 billion wasted each year; and costs the average family of four between $1,350 and $2,275 a year. To paint an even better picture, that's about 20 pounds of food wasted per person each month.” (Lempert Report, Dec 2012). 

Programs are under way to change this picture both by retailers and CPGs. The programs follow a hierarchy of how to attack the problem as defined by the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy. This means first reducing the waste, then direct to feeding people, then animals, industrial uses, composting and landfill/incineration (as a last resort). 

Best Practices

Food Waste Reduction Alliance
Two years ago, an alliance of voluntary players came together to reduce unnecessary food waste. The GMA (Grocery Manufacturers Association) and FMI (Food Marketing Institute) staff had been hearing what an emerging and important issue food waste was for their members. In order to harness momentum in addressing the issue, a formal alliance (the Food Waste Reduction Alliance) was formed by GMA and FMI with leadership by General Mills and Publix, and was joined by the National Restaurant Association. Hentges Commentary  

Jeanne Von Zastrow, Senior Director of Sustainability and Industry Relations at FMI, says, “The Alliance is moving forward in a fearless way. Our member companies are hammering at the door to attend our three meetings a year, so we recognize this issue is urgent and the need to provide tools and resources.” According to Jeanne, managing enthusiasm is a challenge for the Alliance.  “We need to figure out how we include those that wish to be involved in the Alliance; inclusive of outside experts, government, NGOs and service providers.  So we invite these experts to our meetings in order to help inform us and encourage new ways of working together.” Full Interview with Jeanne Von Zastrow The aim is for this collaboration is to be further solidified at the Global Sustainability Summit happening August 14-16 in Seattle, Washington.

Internal Responsibility
While there are companies that have a strong waste reduction program, it has to be a company wide effort. When Tom McIntyre, Director, R&D, Energy and Environmental, SUPERVALU, Inc. speaks of SUPERVALU’s zero tolerance waste program, he lends credit to the empowerment of the employees. “We have many parts to the zero tolerance waste programs that we developed over the last several years, but with the recent sale of five of SUPERVALU’s retail chains, we now have fewer retail stores and are redefining these programs.  What I can say we consistently find in every store are employees who are food waste champions, and they are truly excited by the accomplishments in their stores. It’s great if it’s the store director, but usually it’s an employee who is really into it, and we key in on those folks and empower them. We set goals and give them metrics, and they start implementing the programs and working with the food banks. The people in charge of our programs get very passionate about feeding people in their community while at the same time doing something that has a positive impact on our business.”

Local Government Participation
Tony D’Onofrio, Sustainability Director, has made a lot of positive changes to five-store, Washington State, single-family-owned Town & Country Markets, Inc. in the last four years. The company saw a substantial bump up to an 88% diversion rate with only 12% of food waste going into a landfill. “This was achievable due to the municipality’s participation. It honestly makes those numbers easier to achieve.”  Tony also spoke of Seattle Public Utilitiesas enablers of waste reduction practices through supporting city wide availability of PLA based compostable seafood and meat trays. “This allowed for smaller companies such as ours to have the buying power for these trays alongside companies that have the substantial market such as Safeway and Krogers.” Full Interview with Tony D’Onofrio

Consumer Awareness
According to the EPA’s Municipal Solid Waste Facts and Figures for 2010, “We estimated residential waste (including waste from apartment houses) to be 55 to 65 percent of total MSW (Municipal Solid Waste) generation." Waste in homes is the result of several things. One of them is consumer confusion over expiration labeling. As reported by the Lempert Report, McKinsey Consulting recently stated that with commonality of expiration dates, food waste could reach 20%. The reality is that as soon as “Sell By” dates have been reached or are close, retailers discard the product. A National Resources Defense Council Paper on Food Waste states, “Label dates on food are generally not regulated and do not indicate food safety. Multiple dates, inconsistent usage, and lack of education around date labels cause consumers to discard food prematurely.”   

This led the U.K. government to recently revise its guidance on date labeling such that now 1) “Sell By” and “Display Until” labels should be removed to avoid confusion for shoppers, with different ways of tracking stock control explored by retailers; 2) “Best Before” dates relate to food quality, including taste, texture, and appearance, but do not indicate that eating product past that date will be harmful; 3) “Use By” dates relate to food safety; and 4) food may not be sold after the “Use By” date, but retailers can, with the exception of eggs, sell products after the “Best Before” date, provided they are safe to eat.

Food Banks
Tracy Pawelski, VP of External communications at Ahold USA, spoke of identifying replicable best practices for all the stores in order to benefit from practices underway for decades prior to coming under the Ahold umbrella. “Creating alignment codified what we believed were the best practices, and we wrote new standard operating procedures,” says Tracy. “We also use our own Known Lost Tracking system or KLT and a code that designates a charitable donation in order to track the value of the product being donated. At the same time that we work to minimize shrink, we want to maximize what food is still available for donation.” Ahold then turned to understanding food bank capacity.  “We asked the question quite purposefully about what foods they needed the most.  They responded that protein - especially meat - was the most desired and the most impactful donation we could provide.” The next step was determining if their food bank partners had the capacity to accept the meat and essentially protect the cold chain while ensuring safe food handling procedures. “We found our major food bank partners all accepted fresh and frozen product and most of them had refrigerated trucks.” Full Interview with Tracy Pawelski

Labeling Clarification

The FDA asks, “Did you know that a store can sell food past the expiration date?  A principle of U.S. food law is that foods in the U.S. commerce must be wholesome and fit for consumption.” Therefore, a “Best Before,” “Use By” or expiration date does not preclude a seller from this principle. The FDA will step forward and remove a product should it prove dangerous to public consumption. The labels in fact are up to the manufacturer. On the retail level, each store forms its own policy. According to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection service, open dating (use of a calendar date as opposed to a code) is not a safety date. “There is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States. Although dating of some foods is required by more than 20 states, there are areas of the country where much of the food supply has some type of open date and other areas where almost no food is dated.” The question is whether consumers are willing to purchase such “expired” products at full or reduced prices. Lempert Commentary

In produce, there are governing regulations either through PACA (Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act) or the National Organic Program. Still, the consensus in retail is that labels are confusing to the customer. It doesn’t help that one brand’s policy on shelf stable dating versus another brands may be different. One concern may be the taste and the other concern is the public safety. 

Why Consumer Education is Key

According to the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, the consumer is responsible for over 44% of the food waste in this country. The problem is that the consumer is buying more foods than they need, or can be used before the expiration date, or cooking more than they can consume at mealtime with improper storage of leftovers. Proposals to change “bogofs” (buy one get one frees) where you don’t have to take the second one now but come back to the store and get one later are being considered to help make gradual change. There are other efforts that are being made such as information on websites on safe storage of food and recipes to use leftovers. 

How the Government is Helping Change

On June 4th, the USDA in collaboration with the EPA launched the U.S. Food Waste Challenge where “participants list the activities they undertake to help reduce, recover, or recycle food waste in the United States.” FMI President and CEO, Leslie G. Sarasin, represented the Food Waste Reduction Alliance with USDA Secretary Vilsack and the Environmental Production Agency Acting Administrator, Bob Perciasepe. This Food Waste Challenge is an opportunity for private companies and industry groups to come together and spur enthusiasm.