How many times did you hear this edict as a kid? “Eat your dinner. Do you know how many starving people in China would be grateful to have it?” I can still feel my mother’s icy stare—and sometimes her hand grabbing my collar—following my suggestion that we send them my meal to find out.
However, this isn’t a column about petulant children, but a similar issue that’s costing the food industry billions of dollars annually, yet remains the 800-pound gorilla in the room no one wants to address—food waste.
This old issue seems to be getting new life—and publicity—thanks to a new book, entitled Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, which goes into uncomfortable and sometimes unfathomable details on the extent to which good, edible food is wasted throughout the supply chain. The author is Tristram Stuart, a British environmentalist, freegan and admitted Dumpster diver.
One could argue that Mr. Stuart has an agenda. And let’s not forget that the U.K. is one of the worst offenders when it comes to wasting food, severe enough for the British government to set targets for reducing it. Personally, I’m about as far as you can get from being a tree-hugging environmentalist and I wouldn’t dive into a Dumpster if my life depended on it. But this is clearly a huge social, environmental and economic issue that must be part of any discussion on sustainability or corporate social responsibility.
This isn’t about placing blame or chastising consumers, growers, manufacturers and government bureaucrats for profligate waste. I didn’t like it when my mother did it to me and I don’t see it serving any useful purpose in this discussion. Stuart’s book goes into any number of examples.
But there are some disturbing statistics to bear in mind. Several years ago, researchers at the University of Arizona in Tucson found that 40% to 50% of all food slated for harvest never gets eaten and that manufacturers, retailers, restaurants and consumers could save an estimated $31 billion annually if even a small percentage of this edible food were not discarded. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that 25.9 million tons of food goes into the garbage every year in the U.S. and the figure could be twice that if you count supermarkets, restaurants and convenience stores.
Meanwhile, the environmental impact of reducing the waste stream makes carbon footprinting look like child’s play. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, rotting food in landfills releases methane gas that is 20 times more damaging to the environment than CO2. On the plus side, albeit the long-term one, harnessing biogas from organic matter could result in far greater energy savings than calculating food miles while significantly reducing the country’s dependence on fossil fuels. Not a bad legacy for some old bagels and bananas.
However, while we’re waiting for science to catch up, the entire industry should be looking for ways to reduce waste throughout the supply chain. It is Economics 101 for cutting costs whether there’s a recession or not.
There is nothing more appealing than walking into a Whole Foods or Wegmans and seeing that unending array of fresh, prepared foods. But do supermarkets really understand the concept of practical batch cooking that minimizes waste and how to really train their staffs in efficient preparation techniques?
Furthermore, with Good Samaritan laws spreading across all 50 states to limit legal liability, are enough companies exploring donations of restaurant quality, in-date products to food pantries and other organizations—foods that would otherwise hit the Dumpster? Or, is there still a mentality out there that it’s easier and more practical to simply throw away what doesn’t sell?
Are supermarkets, or food producers for that matter, doing enough in difficult economic times to school consumers in the art of using leftovers rather than dumping them? In addition, can growers convince retailers and distributors not to discard or turn away perfectly good produce simply because it’s not picture perfect?
These are not easy issues to address for an industry that prides itself on cornucopious offerings and being able to produce what consumers want whenever they want it at prices that are among the lowest in the world.
But if commodity prices escalate once again—and many experts believe they will—how can we not eliminate waste and cost by looking for a better economic model. Be assured this is not a throwaway issue.
Len Lewis, a regular Grocery Headquarters columnist, is a veteran industry journalist, commentator and editorial director of Lewis Communications, Inc. He is the author of The Trader Joe’s Adventure—Turning a Unique Approach to Business into a Retail and Cultural Phenomenon. He can be reached at email@example.com or at www.lenlewiscommunications.com.