KANSAS CITY, MO. — More than a third of the 229 million tons of available food went unsold or uneaten in the United States in 2019, according to data from ReFED, a New York-based nonprofit focused on food waste. It estimates that nearly 9 billion meals worth of food, the equivalent of 2% of the country’s GDP, is wasted each year.
“In the United States, food waste is 14% of our greenhouse gas emissions,” said Jackie Suggitt, director of capital, innovation and engagement at ReFED. “It’s over 14% of our freshwater use, 18% of our cropland use and a quarter of our landfill inputs.”
From an economic standpoint, food waste costs the country nearly $400 billion annually. While much of that cost is felt by consumers, waste within food industry sectors is worth approximately $250 billion.
“Unlike a lot of sustainability topics, there’s a very clear and quantifiable return on investment,” Suggitt said. “Unfortunately, food waste has just been baked in as a cost of doing business.”
Approximately 23 million tons of food is wasted at consumer-facing businesses, with shoppers tossing out an additional 30 million tons of food each year. Grocery stores, foodservice operators and consumers often are the focus of waste mitigation efforts, but upstream stakeholders have a part to play, too. Nearly 30 million tons of food is wasted in a year before it gets to retailers and restaurants.
Shelf life and food safety
Food waste begins at the production level, with low market prices and the high cost of labor making it unrealistic for most farmers to harvest everything they produce. ReFED estimates farming generates 16.7 million tons of surplus produce annually, nearly 14% of which is left behind after harvest.
“For farmers, knowing what the demand will be is almost an impossibility,” said Larry Clarke, chief executive officer of NanoGuard Technologies, a food safety and waste mitigation startup based in St. Louis. “Figuring out how to use what they overproduce can positively impact waste mitigation, but you have to keep those foodstuffs stable long enough so that they can actually be used or processed.”
NanoGuard is tackling food waste through a food safety lens. It developed a solution for reducing crop waste caused by mycotoxins, the harmful chemicals that result from poor growing or harvesting conditions. The company’s high atmospheric cold plasma technology uses reactive gases to decontaminate staple crops like wheat and corn, as well as specialty crops like peanuts and almonds. It blows cold air across an item to reduce mycotoxins and other pathogens, helping farmers sell more of the food they grow.
“There’s a lot of money being spent on getting a slight increase in productivity, yet we’re losing so much of what is currently produced,” Clarke said. “Instead of trying to have better yields, we’re focused on saving the yields that we already have.”
NanoGuard’s technology reduces microbes and pathogens on produce and meat, too. Treating food early, ideally right after harvesting and at multiple points in the supply chain, reduces the impact of microbes and prevents premature spoilage as food makes its way from the field to the finished product or produce aisle.
“The longer you can keep products safe and fresh, the less likely they’re going to be wasted,” Clarke said.
The technology also prevents blemishes on fruits and vegetables, a major contributor to food waste throughout the supply chain. Items with blemishes — along with surplus items and those with unusual shape or color — are sidelined as waste on farms, in processing facilities and in wholesale distribution centers.
Companies including Misfits Market, Full Harvest and more are diverting surplus and imperfect produce from going to the landfill, either through direct-to-consumer models or business-to-business channels. Reducing blemishes and expanding efforts to rescue imperfect produce could save nearly 3 million tons of food worth $5 billion annually, according to ReFED.
Edible coatings also address the dual challenges of food waste and food safety. Goleta, Calif.-based Apeel Sciences offers a plant-based coating made of edible lipids that slows down spoilage by preventing water loss and oxidation. Fruits and vegetables with the coating last two to three times longer and have been shown to reduce waste for retailers by up to 50%, according to the company.
“If you zoom out and look at the entire supply chain, contamination and food safety are macro-level causes of food waste,” Suggitt said. “You see it at every level, so a lot of attention should and is being given to shelf life extension.”
Excess and distressed inventory
Manufacturers generate approximately 4 million tons of food waste annually. A significant portion comes from product line waste, an issue that’s gaining visibility as the upcycling movement gathers momentum.
“Upcycling is one of the solutions that you hear about a lot,” Suggitt said. “It’s a hot topic right now. Another solution for manufacturers is taking unshipped finished product, especially if it’s nearing its expiration date, and selling it into the secondary retail market instead of letting it go to waste.”
Aligning inventory with demand has always been a challenge, making overages an inevitable part of food production.
“About 14% of all food waste happens at the manufacturing level,” said Ari Hopkinson, director of customer success at Spoiler Alert, a Boston-based company that digitizes liquidation processes. “Not all of that is finished goods, but there’s a large volume of inventory that’s wasted. Think hundreds or even thousands of cases of an individual SKU going to the landfill.”
Challenges with demand planning and forecasting contribute to excess inventory. Seasonal and holiday-themed items may end up sitting in warehouses alongside discontinued products and promotional items.
Spoiler Alert surveyed 100 CPG leaders this fall and found less than a quarter of food and beverage makers have dedicated technology platforms for selling excess and distressed inventory. Most companies rely on manual workflows for liquidation. The process is error-prone and time-consuming and may end up shaving days or weeks off shelf life, resulting in food that is never sold or eaten.
“Only about 5% of companies are able to move through 75% or more of their inventory,” Hopkins said. “A large portion of companies are selling well below 50%. They don’t have the dedicated tools, systems and resources to effectively move through all of this distressed inventory.”
Spoiler Alert enables food and beverage makers to manage their liquidation processes across a network of discount retailers and nonprofit channels. The company helps supply chain and sales managers catch product with more shelf life and more time to redistribute it in the market.
Enhancing liquidation processes, reducing the impact of mycotoxins and extending the shelf life of products are just a handful of potential solutions for reducing food waste. ReFED also recommends farmers explore new arrangements with buyers to expand product specifications and enable better upstream communication. Building direct relationships with food recovery organizations and employing tools that track yield patterns also are avenues for mitigating waste at the farm level.
Opportunities exist for manufacturers to create more upcycled product lines using edible byproducts. ReFED also encourages manufacturers to consider reengineering processes and redesigning products to reduce waste during production and product line changeovers.
“It’s important to think about food waste as a systemic issue that can’t be solved without addressing issues earlier in the supply chain,” Suggitt said. “The solutions are available now. We’re not waiting on new technologies or policies to make it viable.”