Food waste (Part 2): Retailers, innovation & technology – the impact on the crisis

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10 May 2018 --- Over the last couple of years, moves have been made to crack down on huge waste within the retail industry. Supermarkets now frequently donate food to local charity organizations through organized programs rather than dump it.

It’s a little over a year since France outlawed food waste at a retail level. French Parliament ruled that supermarkets would face fines if they throw away edible food or food that can be used as animal feed.

The Co-op supermarket is cracking down on food waste with its pioneering new initiative to sell food after its “best before” date. The East of England Co-op says it is the first major retailer to start selling products beyond their best before date with the aim of significantly reducing food waste in its stores. The retailer will now sell products over their best before date in its 125 food stores for a nominal 10 pence charge (US$0.13).

The move follows a successful three month trial in 14 of the Co-op’s stores and will be launched with the new campaign, “The Co-op Guide to Dating.”

And UK supermarket Tesco has just launched a new range of cold-pressed juices, using wonky fruit and vegetables that may otherwise have gone to waste. The Waste NOT line uses surplus apples, beetroot, strawberries and watermelon that fall outside produce specifications and are available in 250ml bottles (made from 30 percent recycled plastic) priced at £1.50 (US$2.03). Tesco hopes to “save” around 3.5 tons of surplus/waste fruit and vegetables within the next 12 weeks.

Click to Enlarge“These delicious juices are the latest way that we are helping tackle food waste by ensuring as much of the crop as possible gets used. The fruit and vegetables being used in the range fall outside the specifications for fresh produce and although they might not be flawless to look at they still offer shoppers a great taste,” says Tesco prepared fruit buyer Jo Batty.

All of the fruit and vegetables in the drinks will be cold-pressed – which involves squeezing the juice in small batches instead of heat pasteurizing it. Putting the juice under high pressure in this way maintains the freshness of the product.

Mike Bullock of Waste NOT adds: “Around 50 percent of celery is discarded in the UK before it even gets past the farm gate, beetroot deemed too large or small is rejected. It’s the same with oranges that are “ugly” on the outside but still beautiful and juicy on the inside. What a waste. We couldn’t sit by and watch all this healthy produce be put in the bin.”

“The solution was staring us in the face and Waste NOT is our way of using what’s beautiful on the inside (where it matters) and sharing what tastes good, feels good and is doing good.”

Incidentally, fruits and vegetables are the most wasted category, particularly within households. The obvious perishable nature of fresh produce makes it much more susceptible to being left in the back of the fridge, forgotten about and then thrown away.

Looking closer at the role of packaging in fighting food waste
Food packaging is such a common feature of consumer life that it is easy to forget the vital role it already plays in combating food waste. The principal roles of food packaging include extending shelf life by preserving the processing benefits of food while protecting the product from external influences and damage, thereby prolonging usability (Marsh and Bugusu, 2007).

On the flip side, there is research to suggest that packaging can have a detrimental effect on food waste levels. Friends of the Earth (FOE) recently reported that annual per-capita use of plastic packaging has grown parallel to quantities of food waste since the 1950s – now at 30 kg and 173 kg respectively.

The study, published on behalf of the Rethink Plastic alliance, highlights big retailers as the main drivers of food and packaging waste in Europe due to practices such as food grading standards, and packaging foods in multipacks and small format packs. For example, the research indicated that the common practice of chopping green beans to fit plastic packaging resulted in 30-40 percent of the beans being wasted.

Toine Timmermans, one of Europe’s leading authorities on food waste and Leader of the Sustainable Food Chains program at Wageningen University, explains to FoodIngredientsFirst that packaging is a key driver in the battle against food waste, but that it should be used more logically so as not to become part of the waste problem.

Click to Enlarge“Good packaging protects food and can extend shelf life. That doesn't mean it is always needed: for example, in the summertime when people eat lots of cucumbers, big retailers will use a foil that adds about eight days of shelf life, but it is not realistically needed. Packaging innovation should always follow the mantra to target, measure and act against issues of food waste.”
Timmermans is also Project Coordinator of the EU-funded food waste initiative, REFRESH, which aims to unite key players in the food waste problem within Europe.

“REFRESH is about innovation and behavioral change”, he says “We want to build ‘frameworks for action’ at national (or regional level), with consortia of businesses that set ambitious targets, measure progress, and continuously introduce incremental and radical innovations, as well as bring the transition to the next level. The most advanced/mature country from our five pilot countries (the Netherlands, Germany, Hungary, Spain, and Switzerland) is for sure the Netherlands.”

Despite the strides being made to tackle food waste in the Netherlands, the average Dutch person throws away 50 kg of perfectly good food every year, according to Wageningen University & Research which is conducting high-profile research into the causes of food waste and ways of reducing it.

The infographic (left) shows just how Wageningen University & Research is working on solutions.

Technology & innovation helps fight food waste
Other notable packaging innovations include BluWrap, a patented technology capable of extending shelf life for fresh protein supply chains by more than 40 days. BluWrap overcomes the effects of oxygen and temperature by using fuel cells to actively reduce and consistently monitor oxygen while products are shipped in refrigerated containers.

There is also key innovation from pioneers It’s Fresh! This company has achieved encouraging results in extending shelf life in the particularly troublesome category of fresh fruit and vegetables.

The company has successfully developed a filter system capable of prolonging the ripening period of bananas (and other fresh produce) in a bid to avoid high levels of food waste during transit, retail and home storage.

A series of independent post-harvest tests in Costa Rica confirmed that the filter successfully absorbs the ripening hormone – ethylene – from the banana’s transit environment, doubling the “green” period to an average of 70 days. Circular economy and resource efficiency experts, WRAP, estimate that the UK alone currently consumes more than five billion bananas each year, and throws away 1.4 million each day.

Simon Lee, Founder Director of It’s Fresh!, spoke to FoodIngredientsFirst about the technical qualities of the filter innovation and its potential for food waste.

“We have developed a non-woven hydrophobic substrate which is coated with an active ingredient 100 times more powerful than any other known substance at absorbing and locking away ethylene,” he said.

“Supermarkets only want to purchase bananas that are at the right color stage depending on their specification. Using our filters at the stage of transportation helps them to stay green for longer, which means that when they eventually go to the ripener, you get better yield and less waste, reducing operating costs for the ripener but also extending the quality of the end product.”

“It also gives ripeners flexibility to be able to store bananas and ripen them the next day rather than immediately because their shelf-life is relatively short. It also means that you can ship further afield, so if you’re in the southern hemisphere or Latin America and want to ship to Russia or China, distances that are extremely challenging, we now know that we can keep them fresher for longer using the filter, which opens whole new markets around the world.”

Lee largely attributes the issue of food waste to consumer behavior.

“Consumers now want to be able to eat different types of fruit that are grown all over the world, and they want that 365 days a year – that is a mammoth production and logistical job. I think it’s all about education: over-buying and incorrect storage at home is causing foods to go off prematurely,” he added. 

“The key thing is that people need to understand first where fruit comes from and second how to respect and treat it.”

You can read Part 1 of this report here.

By Gaynor Selby & Joshua Poole

This feature is provided by FoodIngredientsFirst's sister website, PackagingInsights.

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