For years, the U.S. and other countries, along with numerous multinational and private organizations, have been seeking ways to reduce food loss and waste. Despite this, world hunger continues to increase with population growth. In the U.S., up to 40 percent of the food supply goes uneaten, equivalent to an average of 400 pounds of food per person per year and costing an average household of four about $1,800 annually.
This wasteful activity consumes more than $218 billion, or 1.3 percent of the gross domestic product, in futile growing, processing, transportation, and disposal costs. Where does the uneaten food go? EPA estimates that food accounts for 22 percent of all landfill waste.
Internationally, the situation isn’t much better. About one-third of all global food production is either lost or wasted annually, at an estimated price tag of $940 billion, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.
Despite decades of international conferences, scientific meetings, and the issuance of countless reports, the problem of food loss and waste remains seemingly intractable. However, the food industry can play a leading, if not major, role in addressing the problem throughout the food distribution chain, from growing and production, to processing, and to retail and food services, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office.
Many proposed solutions involve new technologies. Among these are novel packaging materials and plant environmental management to better inhibit spoilage of produce and meat. Others involve creation of digital apps using blockchain or the Internet of Things (IoT) so food manufacturers and consumers can trace products throughout the distribution chain.
“By using open technologies, like IBM Cloud, blockchain, IoT, and visual recognition, [software] developers are creating solutions to generate better insights about where waste happens, how to track it, and how to share this data across supply chains,” John Walicki, chief technology officer at IBM Cognitive Applications, tells Food Quality & Safety.
Other approaches are closer at hand and easier to implement. “Perhaps one of the simplest is to standardize food date labels across all supermarkets and retail stores. With millions of pounds of perfectly edible food filling landfills, a solution needs to be found,” says Darcy Simonis, vice president of the food and beverage division of ABB (formerly Asea Brown Bovari).
Confusing Food Labels
“Expiration,” “Use By,” “Sell By,” “Best Before,” “Best If Used By,” and “Enjoy By” are among the various phrases commonly printed on food labels, tending to blur the real date of when a food item is no longer safe to eat and should be discarded. Indeed, a 2007 survey published in the Journal of Food Protection found that fewer than half of consumers are able to distinguish among these various phrases. This confusion is responsible for about 20 percent of consumer food waste, according to ReFED, a multi-stakeholder network of business, nonprofit, foundation, and government leaders working to reduce U.S. food waste.
Frank Yiannas, deputy FDA commissioner for food policy and response, recently published an open letter to the food industry. In it, he encouraged voluntary industry-wide efforts to clarify expiration labeling, noting that the agency has found that consumers often throw out food because they misunderstand product date labels or are unsure how to store perishable foods.
Hopefully, the food industry is poised to address the issue. In 2017, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Marketing Institute brought together 25 consumer packaged goods and grocery retail companies to discuss how to “simplify and streamline” product date labels to reduce consumer confusion. The groups recommended using only two introductory phrases for product date labels: “Best If Used By” and “Use By.” “Best If Used By” would mean that the product may not taste or perform as expected after the specified date, but would be still safe to use or consume. “Use By” would apply to perishable products that should be consumed by the date on the package and discarded afterward.