You’ve probably heard that up to 40% of food produced in the United States goes to waste. If you are like the average consumer, you probably think that you waste less food than others. You may or may not be good at utilizing all the food you buy, but don’t blame yourself for all this waste – the end consumer is only responsible for part of the food that ends up in landfills. Food is wasted all the way up the production chain from bruised produce that gets discarded after harvesting to spoilage during transportation, in supermarkets, processing facilities, restaurants…You get the idea.
Any unused food scraps can, of course, be composted which at least helps with the nutrients returning back into the environment. Since the start of the century, there has been a growing trend among American consumers in household composting. However, composting food waste on a larger scale presents challenges such as transportation costs, lack of advanced technologies, and odor issues. Additionally, composting among US households is still very limited.
What’s Wrong with Being Ugly
In addition to the food we buy that we don’t subsequently consume, there are huge quantities of food that don’t even make it to the grocery store shelf because of being cosmetically imperfect. Part of the problem comes from consumer preference for perfect looking produce that started decades ago.When I first moved to this country in 1996, I remember thinking that all the produce in the grocery store looked like tacky plastic fruit displays and it had no aroma. Fruit even felt plastic to the touch (due to the waxy coating applied). When I lived in off-campus housing during my last year of college, I realized my roommate was throwing out any fruit that had bruises or brown spots. If I wasn’t vigilant, the entire piece of fruit ended up in the garbage because of one tiny bruise!
Due to consumer preference for “perfect” produce, most of the fresh supply of fruit and veggies in this country has been slowly moving to satisfy that preference. This shift has been facilitated by various technologies that separate the undesirable or imperfect produce but also through genetic engineering. Flavor, texture and aroma have been sacrificed as fruit and vegetable varieties have been selected or engineered over the years for higher yield, larger size and more uniform shape. But Americans may be catching on and shifting their preferences to consuming smaller quantities of more imperfect fruit that are packed with flavor. The mouth-watering “uglies” also come at a higher price, which hopefully lessens the percentage of food that goes unused by dis-incentivizing consumer waste.
Show Me the Money
With rising consumer awareness and recent emphasis on simple and non-GMO foods, more consumers are now purchasing more natural looking produce and some retailers are capitalizing on this trend. Whole Foods has started a pilot program in selling cosmetically imperfect produce. Wal-Mart is also testing the waters with a pilot program in Florida. It’s still too early to tell if these recent developments will have any impact on reducing food waste. The challenge for retailers is that ugly produce is not always available, therefore affecting the scalability of such offerings.
The food waste reduction trend is also making money for some manufacturers who are quick to capitalize on higher consumer awareness and the emotional satisfaction of consuming most of the food we buy. Two big manufacturers of food storage containers, Rubbermaid and OXO, recently launched containers specifically designed to extend the life of fresh produce. These manufacturers are investing in research to bring a multitude of offerings to the market to answer consumer frustrations with food spoilage. Rubbermaid worked with market research firm, Ipsos, from early-stage idea development all the way through product and full mix testing to fine-tune the FreshWorks containers, which come in a variety of sizes suitable for different types of fresh produce.
The trend is also apparent in the restaurant industry. The popularity of sourcing fresh, local ingredients has increased with many menus showcasing seasonal ingredients from local farm partners. With locally sourced ingredients, the route from farm to restaurant is shorter allowing restaurants a longer window to utilize the produce before it goes bad. But some are truly going after the waste and whipping up tasty creations from what would otherwise be discarded food. An alliance of chefs, farmers, distributors, processors, retailers, and a few others have teamed up in a community appropriately named WastED. The alliance works with restaurants to offer delicious food literally made from by-products and food waste.
Can this model really be scaled up? Are you going to be buying granola bars made with pomace instead of raisins? Will you soon be eating your hot dog on a bun made with distillers grains? With climate change already having a significant impact on crop yields, using food waste and byproducts may become the norm in a couple of decades, rather than the exception.