Waste warrior: dealing with Australia’s systemic food waste problem

Food waste is no longer an issue that can simply be swept under the carpet, it’s a $20 billion problem in Australia. About 7.3 million tonnes of food is wasted across the entire supply and consumption chain in this country, and while the majority of that is at opposite ends of the food value chain, in primary production (31 per cent) and households (34 per cent), manufacturing and processing is still responsible for 24 per cent of that waste.

In a bid to tackle the problem, Food Innovation Australia Limited (FIAL) partnered with Woolworths and the Fight Food Waste Cooperative Research Centre (FFW CRC) last year to bring international sustainable food systems expert Mark Barthel to Australia to help develop a solution.

Barthel has spent 25 years fighting food waste with brands such as Tesco, Amazon, Walmart, Marks & Spencer and Nestlé, and international organisations such as WRAP, the World Economic Forum, the United Nations and the FAO.

“There’s a pretty serious issue here,” Bathel tells Inside FMCG of the stats in Australia. “These are not insignificant numbers.”

“Food waste is very much a systemic issue. It’s very hard, sometimes for individual organisations or food businesses, or farmers to do much about it without more of an interaction and collaboration with the rest of the value chain.” 

Barthel wants to get people thinking collaboratively in the food chain and believes the simplest of changes can make all the difference.

“I do think retailers have an important part to play. They can affect change on pretty much the whole value chain. Most of them are aware of that and want to react and respond, they just haven’t got a lot of experience in doing it here, whereas in Europe, we’ve been doing it for 15-plus years.”

Moving away from discounting can be a big challenge for retailers, but eliminating promotions like ‘buy one get one free’ can make a huge difference to waste in perishable foods, he says. 

“You’ve got to understand the critical nature of data, and Woolworths in particular have been working really hard to understand the root cause of food waste in their own operation, and in their customers’ homes,” Barthel said. 

“They’ve been doing a lot of consumer insights, a lot of store-level monitoring and auditing. And they’ve got to a point now where they are beginning to understand where the food waste hotspots are and they’re starting to understand some of the solutions.”

He says that providing education around use-by dates, healthy eating and portion control can help combat the issue of food waste at the consumer end. The Love Food Hate Waste campaign that came out of the UK is one option to help consumers calculate how much food they need to cook for a particular amount of people. 

Smart shopping apps such as Bring! allow consumers to share a shopping list across the household so they don’t double up on purchases. 

“Technology has a role to play here, and not just for consumers. Some of the most successful food rescue initiatives out there are run off apps like Food Cloud, which allow instore colleagues to capture food that is suitable for donations for food rescue organisations, transmit it automatically to their registered partners, and then help with optimising logistics for pickup.”

Barthel is working with FIAL to establish a voluntary agreement program with Australian businesses to collaborate in a pre-competitive environment to reduce food waste.

“It’s worked incredibly well in about 20-plus countries. It’s seen as one of the best policy levers for governments to use and is something that is more business friendly,” he said.

“When you bring a group of food businesses together, to work on things, and they all have a common problem, things get done much quicker.”

He says simple things like getting consistency right across date codes can make a big difference.

“Some manufacturers are using ‘best before’ and some are using ‘use by’. It’s incredibly confusing for consumers. Worst case they’re eating food that’s actually not safe to eat in terms of human health, or they end up throwing food away before they need to.”

Things like joint investment in packaging innovation to extend shelf life is also particularly important in the current environment, where there’s a lot of concern around plastic packaging. 

Through a co-investment model between suppliers and retail partners they can look at cost, benefit, and work on the principle of shared cost and shared benefit. 

“Sometimes it would appear that investing in a new technology is not going to be commercially viable, but when you get a group of companies doing it together, it becomes commercially viable, and they can bring a new technology to market faster, or they can even work with research organisations to do that.

“You can build confidence and trust within a group of companies under a voluntary commitment. You can do the whole chain waste mapping to understand the root causes and hotspots for food waste, and work together to tackle them, that is hugely useful to be able to do that.”

This story was first published in Inside FMCG’s quarterly magazine. Subscribe to the digital or print edition here.

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