IT WAS A WARM SUMMER EVENING when they swooped down on nearly a dozen retail stores including Food Lion, Aldi, Rite Aid and CVS. The assault went for two nights and no one stopped them.
It ended as quickly as it began but everyone
knew it was likely to happen again.
No. It is not what you think. This was the
scene in late August when activists from
North Carolina State University led the
first “Food Waste Fiasco,” salvaging an estimated $2,000 in groceries from retail trash
bins in just 10 hours. The booty, laid out on
the university’s grounds included bottles of
Frappucino, 32 zucchinis, sacks of potatoes,
boxes of Thomas’ English muffins and gallons of sweet tea.
This was not the typical dumpster dive.
These waste warriors were drawing attention to an issue that is center stage among
activists and the business community—the
fact that 40 percent of the food produced
in this country, or an estimated $133 billion
pounds, ends up as waste.
There is no one
entity to blame for
this shameful state
of affairs. But no one
in the supply chain—
including consumers—is blameless.
Waste is the byproduct of a consumer
culture that values
convenience regardless of cost or consequence, and the
industry is happy
to accommodate. However, the problem is
reaching epidemic proportions and to let it
go on is a recipe for higher product prices,
manufacturing and transportation costs.
Of course, we can bury it, burn it or ship
it down river to some anonymous landfill, but waste reduction is essential to our
economic and environmental future. Even
if you ignore the environmental and social
ramifications, how much do you think the
average grower, processor, wholesaler or
retailer is losing from the bottom line after
what has come to be seen as normal losses?
No one really knows how much all this
is costing since post-harvest economic
loss data has not been calculated in more
than 30 years, according to academicians.
However, we can no longer afford to see
this as simply the cost of doing business.
With intensified competition between all
segments pushing U.S. retailers toward
regional price wars, bolstering sales and
profitability has got to be “Job One.” Every
penny counts and, right now, too much coin
is being thrown out with the trash.
The industry has taken the first steps
toward getting a handle on the problem.
FMI, GMA and the National Restaurant
Association are moving ahead with the
Food Waste Reduction Alliance, which got
Congress to pass tax incentives for food
donations in the 2016 Omnibus Budget.
Additionally, The Food Recovery Act, which
bolsters Good Samaritan laws shielding
retailers that donate foods from liability, has
gained support on both sides of the aisle.
The federal government is a long way
from dictating terms, but it could happen.
For example, the French Senate banned
large chains from discarding food nearing
its expiration date, requiring them to compost it or donate it to charity. The EU is looking into legislation that would reduce food
waste across the entire European bloc.
However, it will be aggressive efforts
of individual companies that will lead us
out of the wasteland. For example, Stop &
Shop, part of the Ahold/Delhaize group,
has opened an anaerobic digestion facility
at a distribution center where a “digester”
breaks down food to produce methane.
This produces renewable energy for the
facility’s refrigeration system.
In the U.K., Walmart’s Asda chain is reevaluating pressure points within its own
supply chain, and Tesco has reduced the
amount of time food sits in the supply chain
to increase its shelf life.
An issue yet to be resolved is the often
misunderstood “sell-by” dates which consumers see as food safety indicators rather
than guidelines. No one really wants to deal
with another label but standardization could
save an estimated 400,000 tons of food
annually from the dumpster. The problem
here is consumers who believe that throwing food out after the sell by date reduces
the chance of foodborne illness, according
to a study by Ohio State University.
This could be solved by better forecasting
and ordering—which many in the industry
have already addressed. But in such a competitive environment, retailers are still worried about matching consumer demand
with supply and are more than likely to err
on the side of excess.
In the end, only a concerted effort by
everyone in the supply chain will enable us
to sidestep a dystopian future in which the
landscape is dominated by landfills.
It is time to cut out the trash talk and do something about food waste.
By Len Lewis
Len Lewis is a regular Grocery
Headquarters columnist and
veteran industry journalist.
Every penny counts and,
right now, too much
coin is being thrown out
with the trash.