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.
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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.
Also in 2017, the Consumer Goods Forum, a network of more than 400 major international retailers, manufacturers, and service providers, adopted a “call to action” urging food retailers and producers to standardize and simplify product date labels by 2020, with the overall goal of halving food waste by 2025. The Consumer Goods Forum suggested that producers and retailers display only one label at a time and choose between either a safety or expiration date for perishable items (such as “Use By”), or a quality date indicator for nonperishable items (such as “Best If Used By”). A number of large companies have agreed to these guidelines, including Kellogg’s, Walmart, Campbell Soup, Nestle, Tesco, and Unilever.
FDA “strongly supports” the food industry’s voluntary efforts to use “Best If Used By” for quality-based information, Yiannas said in his letter. But the agency is not addressing the proposed “Use By” product date label “for safety reasons at this time,” he wrote, without further explanation.
Regulated Food Labeling
Except for infant formula, food label dates are not federally regulated. According to the USDA, “it is important that consumers understand that the dates applied to food are for quality and not for safety.” Some lawmakers say this unregulated date labeling needs to be changed to clear up consumer confusion and reduce food waste. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, for example, has introduced federal legislation that would end the “arbitrary” dating of food and require uniform, standardized labeling using only two terms: “Use By” or “Best If Used By.” Her Food Date Labeling Act of 2019 (HR 3981) and a companion bill introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. (S 2337), would effectively eliminate the “Sell By” date, which is intended for stores, not consumers, and doesn’t specify when the item goes bad. Instead, the “Use By” date would signify when the product has reached the end of its shelf life and should be discarded. The “Best If Used By” date would signify when quality may begin to deteriorate but the product remains wholesome and can be consumed.
“This bill is an opportunity for the federal government to reduce confusion across the food supply chain and make sure no one is going hungry or inadvertently hurting our environment,” Rep. Pingree said in a statement. “With this piece of legislation, we can help ensure food is being used and eaten, rather than thrown out due to confusion.” As of this writing, legislators have not acted on either of the House or Senate bills.
Technology to the Rescue
IBM recently concluded its Food Waste Developer Challenge, or “virtual hackathon,” in which more than 100 software development teams in the U.S. competed to create solutions using open source technology. Because data lies at the heart of the food waste problem, “coders can come in to help create a more transparent and real-time supply chain tracking how food is sold and fulfilled with waste reduction in mind,” IBM’s Walicki says.
IBM announced the winners in September, but has no plans to own or control any potential solutions. “As foundational partners in the open technology community, we feel that innovation can come from many areas and we want to encourage others to build upon the technologies IBM has pioneered to create new breakthroughs to our society’s biggest challenges, including food waste,” Walicki explains.
Other off-the-shelf traceability software can be applied to the food supply chain. ABB’s Manufacturing Operations Management suite could allow consumers to digitally trace the life cycle of a food product. A livestock farmer, for example, could upload into a database an animal’s identification number, its age, the date it was slaughtered or milked, the date of packaging, and where it has been distributed. A QR or barcode linking to this information could be printed on the packaging. Once on supermarket shelves, consumers could scan the code to view the product data.
“If consumers could trace how long ago and where their meat was slaughtered, packaged, and distributed, or if they could see what date their milk was produced and which farm it came from, they may reconsider throwing away food that is safe to eat, reducing waste,” ABB’s Simonis says.
A Comprehensive Approach to Food Waste
Everyone, from governments, to food processors, manufacturers, and packing providers, to wholesalers, retailers, and consumers can play a role in reducing food loss and waste, according to recommendations from the World Resources Institute aimed at halving food loss and waste by 2030.
The report, released in August, recommends that packaging manufacturers expand use of coatings and resins to extend shelf life and make available a wider variety of resealable options. Researchers could develop innovative products from perishable items, such as fruits and vegetables, to promote whole food utilization, it stated, and policymakers could support standardized date labeling practices and increase investment in agricultural research to reduce post-harvest loss.
But this isn’t to suggest that governments, including the U.S., have been idle. The USDA and EPA, for example, have run programs to reduce food loss and waste since at least 2013, when they launched the U.S. Food Waste Challenge. Thus far, the project has signed up more than 4,000 businesses, schools, and other organizations.
For years, the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service has been funding and conducting research on new technologies to reduce food waste. Some of the innovations include development of a fruit- and vegetable-based powder to inhibit spoilage of fresh-cut produce, active packaging to extend fruit and fresh-cut produce shelf life, and development of an optical analyzer to help growers assess crop maturity and quality to determine optimal harvest time and post-harvest handling/processing procedures.
Meanwhile, companies large and small are developing better approaches to reducing food waste. Chicago-based startup Hazel Technologies, for one, is developing sachets that can be dropped into bulk crates of fruit and vegetables to inhibit formation of ethylene, and triple the amount of time produce stays fresh.