Food waste is a global problem that needs to be addressed by both consumers and businesses, such as retailers and food service establishments. According to a United Nations Environment Programme and World Resources Institute report, about one-third of all food produced worldwide, worth about $1 trillion, gets lost or wasted in food production and consumption systems. In the U.S., the amount of food wasted equates to more than 20 pounds of food per person per month.
There are numerous reasons as to why food is wasted. Sometimes consumers purchase an excess of food and can’t consume it all before it spoils. Some food does not meet certain aesthetic standards and never makes it to retail shelves or restaurant plates. And in other cases, food rots at an accelerated rate because it isn’t stored properly. Food service managers can commit to better inventory management and cooking with so-called “ugly” products, like misshapen fruits or vegetables. Proper food storage practices will also reduce food waste, as well as maintain food safety standards.
Reducing Food Waste
According to the EPA, limiting the amount of food that is produced and thrown away can help to address climate change as food waste contributes to higher levels of methane and greenhouse gases. Additionally, the land, water, labor, energy, and other inputs used in producing, processing, transporting, and preparing food that is wasted could have gone into other uses to benefit society.
Food waste not only means less money for restaurants, their stakeholders, and their employees, it can also drive up the price of food. No restaurant wants to throw away potential profit, yet so many do. National Restaurant Association says that between 4-10 percent of food purchased by a restaurant or food service operation is discarded before reaching the customer.
Another disturbing fact about food waste is some people in the world are in a position to purchase and waste food without a second thought, while others can’t afford enough food or don’t have access to the food they need to survive. According to Feeding America, more than 42 million Americans live in food-insecure households, including 13 million children. Food that is wasted could be redistributed to people in need, but it often ends up in landfills.
Food Storage Options
Improper food storage causes food to spoil at a faster rate. For example, freezer burn occurs when moisture in the product escapes to the freezer environment where the dew point is very low. The choice of packaging materials can impact food protection in such cases. In the case of freezer burn, the opportunity for freezer burn increases if storage containers are not constructed with polymers that restrict the transmission of moisture.
Thankfully there are numerous solutions for storing food, including the following examples.
Resealable storage bags. These are plastic bags that prolong the shelf life of food and reduce the risk of cross-contamination in food storage areas such as refrigerators, freezers, and pantries. Food service managers should look for bags with strong side seals, double zippers, and welded zipper corners to reduce leaks and tears. The bags should close securely, but not be difficult to reopen.
Vacuum seal storage bags. These are airtight bags that preserve, protect, and store foods, such as fresh red meat, poultry, fish, and cheese. The bags may feature a multilayer film with an oxygen barrier, moisture barrier, or other purpose-designed properties.
Food storage containers. These are plastic or glass containers of various sizes that are used to store, and in some cases, reheat food.
5 Storage Tips to Address Food Risks
There are many food storage mistakes that can increase food waste and food safety risks. Consider the below five tips to reduce leaks, cross-contamination, freezer burn, accelerated spoilage, and more.
- Handle food safely. Food cannot be above 41 degrees Fahrenheit for more than 4 hours total, so thawing and prepping should be completed within this window of time. To properly thaw freezer food, it can be transferred to the refrigerator or put under running water that is below 70 degrees. Food that is cooked should be cooled to 70 degrees within 2 hours and cooled to 38 degrees (refrigeration temperature) within 6 hours. It’s best to label food items with the type of food, the date it was prepared, and a use by date if it is to be stored and consumed after 24 hours.
- Arrange food properly. Prepared foods, such as deli salads, pre-sliced ready-to-eat items, and cakes, should be stored at the top of the refrigerator, followed from top to bottom by raw produce, raw seafood, raw red meat, raw ground meat, and then raw poultry. Separating foods in this manner reduces the risk of raw meat leaking onto and contaminating other food products.
- Pay attention to food storage temperatures. If food is not stored at the proper temperature, it can spoil faster and be unsafe to consume. Perishable food should be kept at or below 41 degrees Fahrenheit in the refrigerator and at or below -4 degrees Fahrenheit in the freezer. If food was purchased from a refrigerated section, it should not be stored outside of the refrigerator. It’s also best to pay attention to labels of food purchased outside of refrigerated areas, as they may need to be stored in the refrigerator after being opened.
- Use food before it spoils. Food that is beyond its expiration date may suffer from quality issues, such as staleness or color change, as well as food safety issues. Processed food should be consumed within seven days after it has been opened. Food can be stored indefinitely in the freezer, although issues like freezer burn may affect the quality if food storage containers fail to keep moisture out.
- Clean food storage areas. Although refrigerators, freezers, and pantries are considered non-food contact surfaces, they should still be cleaned regularly. Daily light cleaning and a weekly deep clean is recommended for refrigerators, while frozen and dry storage can get by with monthly cleaning. Temperature control of the food has to be maintained during cleaning, so refrigerated food should be moved to another cold storage area during cleaning. Use a degreaser for shelves and floors in refrigerators and pantries. Sanitizing is not necessary unless a food has leaked while being stored. In these cases, a sanitizer with a low-temperature claim is best.
Avoid frequent thawing of a freezer for cleaning as condensation can lead to microbial growth that can survive the freezing process. As long as the freezer is not turned off for cleaning, the food can remain in the freezer during cleaning. It is best to clean a freezer with a brush, broom, or other non-chemical method and only spot clean the floor with a chemical where needed. Avoid water-based cleaners when cleaning freezers, as the water will freeze.
The Future of Food
Food waste is a global problem that negatively affects climate change, food insecure households, resource allocation, and the economy. However, food waste can be curbed, and food service establishments can play a major role. Today, a number of chefs are tackling food waste with various tactics, such as donating unsold food to pantries and homeless shelters, composting, and learning to cook what might be considered waste, scraps, and rejected but perfectly safe food.
Proper food storage plays an essential component of every food waste initiative. Storage containers can reduce the occurrence of spoiled food and can generate more revenue simply because they allow restaurants to deliver fresh food to guests rather than to landfills. Food service managers need to understand their storage options and use them as needed. Doing so will allow food service operators to serve fresh and safe food and reduce the unnecessary costs associated with food waste.
Dr. Grinstead is a senior food safety technology fellow and Jordan is the director of business development, Retail Food Safety & Kitchen Hygiene, with Diversey. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, respectively.