The war on waste
Supermarkets work hard to ensure their products are up to standard for their customers, but at what cost? Is having the perfect apple with a “dropped shoulder” worth wasting the abundant apples that don’t measure up to aesthetics?
Beyond the supermarket, the average Australian discards up to 20 per cent of the food they have bought. On average, 40 per cent of the average household bin is food, and the average household throws away $1036 worth of food every year.
So, food waste is far more than just supermarkets trying to meet customer expectations of perfect fruit. On the popular TV documentary series War on Waste, Craig Reucassel visits a banana farm where a worker tells him that the banana he’s holding is too big to be sold.
“We will have to throw that one away,” she said, telling Reucassel that about 40 per cent of the bananas will be discarded because of the “very strict supermarket specifications”. This is just one example of the larger issue.
RMIT University research fellow Simon Lockrey said the model of fresh-food production has been dictated by rules defining customer needs. These needs have been driven by insights from focus groups.
“On the supply side, using focus groups could be analogous to a ‘blunt instrument’ broadly to fresh-food supply, where the proposition is that the population wants food that looks, smells, feels and is shaped in a relatively homogenous way,” he said. “This in turn can lead to supply-side waste, which is replicated at other types of food companies we have observed in our field research. Consumers are arguably not homogenous.”
International supply chains have been blamed for a large amount of waste in the food industry. UK charity Feedback said that in many countries, supermarkets and their suppliers routinely dump their waste and responsibilities on those further down the supply chain.
“Transferring financial risk from the market, they force farmers who grow food for us to throw away vast quantities of good, edible food,” the charity said on its website.
A large amount of food is thrown away throughout the supply chain because of recommended expiry dates. However, the expiry date of the food depends on the storage conditions. “Smart packaging will tackle this issue by giving warning signals before the actual expiry date of packaged food rather than the recommended date suggested by the supplier,” said Professor Fariba Dehghani, director of the ARC Food-Processing Training Centre at the University of Sydney.
Packaging plays a key role in reducing food waste. “The more food is transferred from one box to another (such as in multiple handing), or if the box itself is crushed during transit, the incidence of wasted (unsaleable) food increases.
“Apart from the pallet, reusable plastic containers (RPCs) have a significant role to play in the supply chain of the future,” said Brambles senior manager for sustainability Lachlan Feggans.
He said it is important for brands to focus on where they can have the most impact, and that they should collaborate throughout the supply chain to maximise that change.
“In regards to food waste, it is important to remember that food isn’t the only thing wasted when it’s not consumed. There is lost packaging, energy, water, soil and worker-hours. This is called the product life cycle, and is understandably often in the ‘too-hard basket’ because it is not everyone’s core business.”
A Woolworths spokesperson said supermarket giant is committed to supporting local communities by working alongside charitable organisations to help feed people who often go without. But while partnering with charities is a positive step forward, it does not address the root issue.
Need for education
Also, said Dehghani, “We need to give high-quality food to charities, not leftovers. We need to manage food production better. We need to educate our society to minimise food consumption and reduce waste rather than simply giving leftover food to charities.”
Lockrey said that partnering with charities is only part of what needs to be done. “Transformation of the supply chain and consumer perceptions and practices, as well as better use of all food produced, have real potential to drive reductions throughout the supply chain – likely using big data – not just at the end with food charities.”
Charities such as FoodBank and OzHarvest work passionately with supermarkets and food brands to help ensure food is going to hungry stomachs instead of bins. OzHarvest said it has saved more than 20,000 tonnes of food from ending up in landfill.
Now the not-for-profit organisation has launched Australia’s first food-wastage supermarket, The OzHarvest Market, where supermarkets can donate excess fresh food that may have not made shelves because of cosmetic reasons. Customers can set their own price when buying the food, however much they take.
Away from landfill
With increasing amounts of food being rescued by OzHarvest daily, CEO/founder Ronni Kahn believes the supermarket provides a way to steer surplus food away from landfill to those who might not be reached through the organisation’s existing service. The government also has a crucial role when it comes to the issue of food waste.
“Supermarkets have been working with the government to help develop the National Food Waste Strategy,” said Minister for the Environment and Energy Josh Frydenberg. “The government has also engaged with the supermarkets and multinational companies at a roundtable on food waste I convened, and other stakeholder forums such as the Zero Food Waste Forum, to bring together key players from the supply chain to tackle the issue of reducing food waste in Australia.”
OzHarvest also works closely with the government. “The government has agreed to a 50 per cent reduction in food wastage by 2030,” said Kahn. “We have meetings with the government and are absolutely working on achieving that target.”