Food loss “hotspots” identified in new study: Human error accounts for 11 percent of all food waste, researchers say

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03 Jan 2019 --- Human errors caused by a lack of standardized procedures and insufficient training are the primary drivers behind loss in food manufacturing, a new study has found. Researchers at Brunel University London and Ghent University have found that human error accounts for 11 percent of all food waste, second only to the losses recorded as a result of product change – changing the food output of a manufacturing facility.

The paper – Importance of Sustainable Operations in Food Loss – Evidence from the Belgian food processing industry – and findings have been published in the journal Annals of Operations Research. Researchers studied the production processes at 47 food manufacturers in Belgium to determine where the highest losses were observed.

“At most of the companies we went to, there was no standardization of work or visual management in place,” says Dr. Manoj Dora of Brunel Business School, who led the study. “It’s a management issue,” he claims. 

“In many instances, there wasn’t proper training or standardization of work being applied in their workplace, and as a result, there was a greater tendency towards errors, and therefore, more food waste.”

The researchers gathered data from a wide variety of companies, ranging from ready-meal manufacturers producing 6,300 tons of food per year to drinks manufacturers producing nearly 130,000 tons of products per year. On average the manufacturers suffer a loss of one ton of food for every 35 tons they produce.

Where 11 percent of this loss was accounted for by human error and 13 percent was caused by product changes, a further 9 percent was attributed to product defects and 6 percent as a result of buyer contracts.

“Aside from human error, another key area of loss is product changes,” adds Dr. Dora.

Click to EnlargeDr. Manoj Dora of Brunel Business School“Say you’re making a tomato sauce and when you’ve finished you want to make a mustard sauce, then this means the whole process must be cleaned. This whole process contributes a significant amount of loss.”

“We need a transparent, collaborative system, appropriate measurement and visual management tools. Moreover, the implementation of quality improvement tools such as lean management in the production process can significantly reduce food loss,” Dr. Dora tells FoodIngredientsFirst.

Establishing Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) can also improve awareness, targeting and monitoring of food loss. Furthermore, holistic approaches to equipment maintenance can avoid breakdowns, small stops, defects or accidents, according to Dr. Dora. “Thereby, further research is needed to determine effective strategies to empower operators and create shared responsibility for equipment maintenance and food loss measurement, through visualization of food loss objectives.”

Currently, the researchers are looking into the UK food supply chain from a “circular economy” perspective: “Our research aims to map the opportunity cost of food waste across the supply chain in the frame of circular economy model. For instance, farmers do not have information about the opportunity cost of the food waste which is going to the landfill, instead of being used for energy, compost or animal feed,” Dr. Dora explains. “In this regard, farmers lack information about how to cost-effectively use, re-use or recycle food waste.”

In the sector-wise analysis, the study revealed that, in terms of quantity, the vegetable and fruit sector contribute to the highest percentages of loss followed by the ready meal sector. Although, regarding the financial cost of food loss, the chocolate and ready-meal sector ranks joint first, says Dr. Dora.

Dr. Dora and his team also identified the relationship a company has with its suppliers and customers as being an area of significant loss, especially when considering seasonal goods.

“When dealing with suppliers, it is important when you order, how you order, and how you keep the produce,” he notes.

“But then dealing with the buyers – the supermarkets – is also critical. Let’s say a retailer orders a thousand kilos of sausages predicting good weather, but then it clouds over and rains, so retailers cut down their demand. This would mean the manufacturer bears these losses, and there is significant waste.”

“This shows a lack of collaboration in the supply chain – the farmer, the processor and the buyers aren’t in sync. They’re talking, but not enough to predict each other’s demand and supply.”

One of the most interesting findings, according to Dr. Dora, was how unaware many manufacturers – particularly the smaller ones – were of how much food they were wasting.

“We were amazed to see how little companies didn’t actually measure how much they were throwing away and they were surprised to see in monetary terms how much they’re losing because of food loss,” he explains. 

“Good collaboration, appropriate measurement systems and the implementation of lean management tools in the production process can significantly reduce food loss,” he concludes.

By Elizabeth Green

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