How do we go about reducing fresh food waste in the supply chain?

The size and scale of the fresh food waste problem is frankly astonishing. According to the National Resources Defense Council, America wastes up to 40 percent of its food from farm to fork to landfill. In terms of specific categories, the NRDC states that retail food waste alone is:

  • 12 percent for fresh fruits
  • 10 percent for fresh vegetables
  • 11 percent for dairy
  • 8 percent for fish and seafood
  • 7 percent for eggs
  • 4 percent each for meat and poultry

That’s how much our grocery stores are throwing out. If you think that’s bad, as consumers, we’re even more wasteful. Per the NRDC, we toss:

  • 31 percent of fish and seafood
  • 25 percent of fresh fruit
  • 24 percent of fresh vegetables
  • 23 percent of meat
  • 21 percent of eggs
  • 20 percent for dairy
  • 18 percent for poultry

Those numbers are downright scary alone but particularly so when you add them together. For example, in total, we waste 39 percent of fish and seafood and 37 percent of fresh fruit! Why?

Reducing Fresh Food Waste – An Unaddressed Problem

In a recent article in Forbes, Zest Labs’ CEO Peter Mehring stated “Food waste is an unaddressed problem, and a huge problem. Day to day, I don’t think there’s enough focus on solving the problem.” But there is good news as Mehring says “There’s both a business and a sustainability benefit for companies to get on board.”

Simply put, reducing fresh food waste benefits the entire food system as well as our population as a whole. It makes financial, ethical and environmental sense.

Reducing Fresh Food Waste – Finding the Cause

To reduce fresh food waste, we first have to determine the cause. The primary causes of fresh food waste are harvest conditions and the impacts of post-harvest processing. Further, most of the impact on freshness occurs in the first 24 to 48 hours after harvest and varies from pallet-to-pallet. Factors that impact shelf-life or freshness at the pallet level are variations in:

  • Types of produce
  • Harvest-temperatures and cut-to-cool times
  • Pre-cooling efficiency and effectiveness

The Forbes article states “Variations in the harvest, picking and packing of strawberries – even small ones –  can shift the fruit’s actual shelf life. Boxes of fruit might be left outside in the heat if the facility is behind in shipping out its produce, or packed into a truck incorrectly, causing variations in storage temperature depending on how and where the fruit ends up in the truck.” If we as an industry are committed to reducing fresh food waste, we need to prevent these issues.

“What really happens,” says Mehring, “is that the sticker on the harvest case is not as meaningful because of the condition and processing of the crops.” As a result of these factors, different pallets of produce harvested from the same field on the same day can have shelf-life that varies by five days or more. The resulting harvest date labels are often inaccurate, when it comes to predicting when food will spoil or go bad, exacerbating the fresh food waste problem.

Why We Waste So Much

When the grocer receives products such as produce at their distribution center, they’ll perform visual inspections. These are helpful for identifying things like mechanical damage (like bruising) and other potential safety issues but are limited, at best, for identifying the remaining freshness. The challenge when it comes to reducing fresh food waste is you can’t see that produce is about to spoil until it starts to spoil and, at that point, it’s too late to do anything about it. Visual inspection is a lagging indicator of freshness. So, if it looks ok, the retailer accepts it at the distribution center and sends it to the store.

At the store, the grocer will display the produce and cull it daily, removing produce that doesn’t look good enough (fresh enough) to sell because it ran out of shelf-life. That goes into the dumpster. Typically produce is displayed for a couple of days so we need at least two days of shelf-life for the retailer but that only gets it to the consumer’s home.

One of the reasons consumer waste is so high is that the produce, for example, runs out of shelf-life before the consumer can enjoy it – typically four or five days for strawberries, for example or a week for lettuce. I’m sure most of us have bought a clam shell of strawberries only to have them grow mold or turn to mush by the next day. This, coupled with other issues, such as buying too much food or last minute changes in our meal plans, needs to be addressed when it comes to reducing fresh food waste.

Through personal diligence, we can shop smarter and plan our meals more wisely, but it still means we need to ensure that the food we purchase has adequate remaining freshness once we buy it in order to reduce fresh food waste caused by premature spoilage.

Pallet-level Data-driven Analytics for Reducing Food Waste

Zest Fresh provides pallet- or case-level data-driven analytics and insights that to enable intelligent decision making across the fresh food supply chain – from harvest or processing to retailer or restaurant – that ensures delivered freshness and reduces food waste by 50 percent or more. It is the first and only solution that enables proactive freshness management.