Last year, consultants at Capgemini surveyed 10,000 people in Europe, the US and Asia Pacific and 60% were feeling guilty about wasting food. However, 57% were also “disappointed” in food companies for not tackling the issue.  

One respondent described their “upset” at losing 10% of their ketchup which remained stuck to the bottle. “[…] really disappointing in a hungry world”, they said.

Frontline grocery and manufacturing workers were also feeling similarly despondent. “The amount of food waste I witness working at [a leading food retailer] … I can’t tell you how sad, depressed and angry it makes me,” admitted one.

A mountain to climb

Data on the vast tonnage of food wasted up and down the supply chain certainly make for alarming (and painful) reading: 33-40% of the world’s food is lost or wasted every year, according to McKinsey; the water consumption linked to food loss and waste amounts to approximately a quarter of the world’s freshwater supply, while greenhouse gas emissions from food loss and waste constitute 8% of the global total (or at least four times those of the aviation industry). Research led by the US Department of Agriculture and published in the journal PNAS also shows halving food waste would benefit global biodiversity more than half as much as all Americans simultaneously shifting to a sustainable diet (though arguably both need to happen).

One of the UN sustainable development goal targets (SDG 12.3) is to halve food loss and waste by 2030 but, as we near the halfway point (from 2017 to 2030), countries and companies are lagging behind where they should be, according to a recent progress report compiled by Champions 12.3, a voluntary coalition of leaders from governments, businesses, international organisations, research institutions and civil society dedicated to the target.

“Over the past two years, events such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic have exacerbated food loss and waste by continually disrupting the human food supply chain,” the authors noted.  

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The report paints a picture of where the 50 largest food companies are on food loss and waste. The good news is that almost 95% have set specific targets and 40% have a baseline and are measuring and reporting. “If you can’t measure food waste, you’ll never report it properly,” explains Maria Castroviejo, senior analyst for consumer foods at Rabobank, the Dutch multinational banking and financial services company. 

Tracking food waste is easier than ever thanks to automated technology. A study in the journal Waste Management showed how the digitisation of food waste data at a factory producing up to 120,000 ready meals a day in real-time using an Internet of Things monitoring system cut waste by 60.7%. There was “better real-time visibility of the [food waste] hotspots, reasons for waste generations, reliable data, operational improvements and employee behavioural transformation”, the authors from Loughborough University in the UK wrote. 

In 2022, Ikea became the first of those 50 global companies to halve its food waste. A 54% reduction across its 400 in-store restaurants was “achieved with a food waste measurement solution that uses a smart scale”, the retailer explained in its 2022 sustainability report, published earlier this year. The tool measures the amount of food waste produced in Ikea restaurants, bistros, Swedish cafés and employee restaurants.  

The reduction – which resulted in savings of 36,000tCo2e and $37m – involved more than technology though: people were critical, with new employees recruited to ensure efforts were spread across their operations; 20,000 staff were also trained using the Winnow AI technology in their daily routines. “[…] our food co-workers have been instrumental in this,” explains Karen Pflug, chief sustainability officer at Ingka Group, the largest Ikea retailer. Will others follow this lead?

The problem with voluntary measures

Companies such as Ahold Delhaize, Kellogg and Grupo Bimbo, have also reported impressive reductions in food waste. Tesco, which has been a leader in this space since it first published a warts and all audit of the food waste in its supply chain a decade ago, has managed a 45% food loss and waste reduction across its supply chain since 2016-17 and is aiming for 50% by 2025 (five years ahead of its original target). The retailer has also tied executive pay to three key sustainability targets including food waste reduction – and following a review the measure remains “material to the business”, according to Tesco remuneration committee chair Alison Platt. 

Tesco has been pushing hard for mandatory reporting of food waste. EU member states will soon have to set food waste targets, but few companies have been willing to share details of their waste audits (if they do them). In the UK, the charity Wrap has struggled with a voluntary initiative to encourage food companies to target, measure and act on food waste.  

Martin Bowman, senior policy and campaigns manager at UK-based NGO Feedback, is among those not convinced that voluntary agreements would produce the progress required to hit that 50% by 2030 target set out in the UN SDG. He is particularly critical of the #123 Pledge announced at COP27 in November. “It enshrines the hugely damaging distinction between ‘food loss’ and ‘food waste’, setting a 50% target only for retail/consumer food waste and a hugely unambitious target of 25% reduction for food loss,” he explains. 

The idea that food loss mainly occurs in lower-income countries and ‘food waste’ occurs in high-income countries is “a hugely damaging myth”, he says. “The most up-to-date information shows food wasted in pre-consumer supply chains is actually higher in rich countries. Technology problems like cold storage are replaced by other problems like cosmetic out-grading and unfair trading practices.” 

There is plenty of waste to go at in grocery stores. US meat start-up Do Good Foods, which upcycles food waste into feed for animals, “saved” 35 million pounds of waste from landfill in its first year of operations, says co-founder Justin Kamine, which amounts to 4,500 tonnes of saved CO2e (burying biodegradable waste produces methane, the powerful greenhouse gas).  

It’s also launched the Do Good chicken brand, with part of the soya content of the birds’ feed replaced by the Do Good feed made from the collected food waste. Carbon savings, closed-loop recycling, reduced food waste and cutting back on the use of soya make for a powerful proposition in stores – and there is price parity. If one out of five of the 175m chickens a week consumed by US consumers was a Do Good chicken “we’d solve food waste”, says Kamine.

In June, the company filed for Chapter 11 (or so-called reorganisation) bankruptcy as it looks to restructure and invigorate its aggressive expansion plans. The news is not surprising in the current climate of venture capital funding for sustainable food startups – think what’s happened to indoor agriculture firms and plant-based manufacturers of late. But, if a business that turns ‘free’ waste into sustainable feed for meat that boasts lower emissions can’t succeed, then what does it say about the modern food system? 

There are many other brands dedicated to taking produce the supermarkets don’t want and turning it into something that consumers do. 

UK business Rubies in the Rubble started niche, making chutneys and relishes from a central food market in London but has since expanded to ketchups and mayo as it looks to scale and go after a far bigger market. It has listings at UK supermarkets. Most manufacturers and retailers are thinking about food waste in one way or another but reporting needs to be “normalised”, says operations and sustainability manager Cameron McDonald who has been “surprised” how little monitoring goes on at processing plants or on farms.

More collaboration needed

There have been reports that UK supermarkets’ own targets to reduce in-store food waste have created more wastage on farms. Other experts warn that, at times, food waste is simply shifted from one part of the chain to another. The “real opportunity” here is collaboration across the supply chain, explains Leanne Singleton, a food safety specialists and technical specialist at Stop Food Waste Australia. “The primary producers, the processors, the packers, the logistics operators, the retailers, all need to be in the same room [discussing] how can we make sure that we’re doing ‘whole of supply chain action’ so that we’re not inadvertently just shifting waste from one part of the supply chain to the other.”

On-farm waste was until recently poorly understood. Work by WWF and Tesco shows an estimated 3.3m tonnes of food may be lost and wasted on farms in the UK each year. This suggests food waste at farm stage represents over 25% of food loss and waste in the UK. “A lot of food waste actually occurs because the price to buy the crop is not high enough to justify the harvest – so first of all, there’s a problem with financial mechanisms,” says Charlotte Bande, global food and beverage sector lead at international consultancy Quantis.

Tesco is already working with more than 100 of its suppliers to reduce waste in its supply chain. It is among the founding members of 10x20x30 – an “infinitely preferable” initiative to the #123 Pledge, according to Feedback’s Bowman – which brings together ten of the world’s biggest food retailers and providers to each engage with 20 of their priority suppliers to aim to halve rates of food loss and waste by 2030. Walmart, Ahold Delhaize, AEON and Metro are also involved.  

Information on progress made since the 2019 launch is sparse but an update is due next month, says Liz Goodwin, senior fellow and director the World Resources Institute (WRI), which is involved in the initiative. Some 223 companies are now involved with the big ten engaging numerous suppliers (with some overlap); three in four have also established a baseline and are working to reduce their food waste. Goodwin, who is also a former CEO at Wrap, does admit however that “not many companies are very willing to be open about their food waste figures – they fear criticism”, she explains. 

But a number of companies have published their plastic packaging footprints, for example, as well as their carbon emissions within their net-zero plans, so why not display more detailed figures on food waste? “We’ve yet to see companies really start to even measure how much food is wasted in their value chain,” says Bande, so even some of the low-hanging (wonky) fruit is yet to be picked.  

One review of 40 food businesses published in the journal Business Strategy and the Environment showed the focus seemed to be on reducing food loss and waste – rather than preventing it from occurring in the first place. Redistribution is “commendable” for example, in terms of addressing social and environmental concerns, the author noted, but “rather than finding solutions for reducing FLW, prevention strategies should focus on preventing its causes across the supply chain”. 

There are concerns food companies, though acting with the best intentions, see redistribution as a solution to over-production and stocking. More food could be redistributed – in some countries, it is cheaper to send the waste for treatment at anaerobic digestion plants, according to FareShare, a UK charity. It is not a solution to poverty but the short-term need is desperate: some 650m kilos of food was distributed by members of the Global Foodbanking Network in 2022. 

But it wasn’t easy. Supply chain disruptions hampered food banks’ ability to recover surplus food, donated food became more difficult to source, the cost of food and gas increased, and financing became less available, explains Katie Pearmine, the network’s associate director. “While funds and attention flooded into food banks during the height of the Covid pandemic, food banks are now right-sizing and reshaping themselves to match the impacted food system,” she explains. 

Home truths for consumers

There are fears in certain quarters that food waste as an issue is being deprioritised by businesses. “The industry needs to take responsibility for its food waste,” says David Newman, MD at the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association (BBIA) but, once food leaves the door, businesses often see it as “someone else’s responsibility and someone else’s cost.” 

Fingers can often be pointed at consumers – who do waste huge amounts of food. Some 70% (6.6Mt) of the food waste in the UK is from households, according to Wrap, compared to 16% (1.5Mt) from manufacturers and 3% (0.3Mt) from retail. The Consumer Goods Forum and the World Benchmarking Alliance have said “too many people in the industrialised world think nothing of throwing produce in the bin. This should not be the norm.”

How to cut back on consumer food waste is a considerable challenge. Some firms are changing their labelling from ‘use by’ to ‘best before’ and encouraging shoppers to decide for themselves when food is ok and when it isn’t – within reason. “The underlying problem is that many products have a use-by date that do not scientifically need them,” says Dominic Watkins from law firm DWF. Supermarket Morrisons has made changes, as has Danone (in the UK and Ireland) for its dairy products. 

Encouraging buyers to sniff products will only scratch the surface of the problem, however. Consumers want to reduce their waste and do their bit, explains Do Good’s Kamine, but they’re reluctant to change their habits or pay any more.

Changing behaviour at home is going to be extremely difficult. “What you’re starting to see some companies think about is consumer nudging around waste; there’s been some discussions that we’ve had with some industries, consumer-facing ones in food and beverage, about portion sizing [and] businesses are starting to see their responsibility,” says Bande.  

Interventions toward the production end of the supply chain have economic and environmental benefits but how many food brands are going to encourage consumers to buy less? “Retailers should be applauded for what they’ve done [so far] but there’s a bigger, more complex problem,” says Sophie Attwood, senior behavioural scientist at the WRI. Technology is all well and good but “we need to understand people’s habits”.  

Attwood is just starting a two-year project looking specifically at this issue in the US and is focusing on supermarket food waste. The plan is to look at interventions supermarkets can implement to help their customers reduce food waste – an approach that has worked successfully in the WRI’s work to help foodservice companies and caterers encourage diners to choose plant-based meals when they are eating out. The research to date has been “bitty” says Attwood, which doesn’t mean it’s wrong but “there is no strong narrative on what works”. 

The story on food waste so far remains a bleak one. But there is hope that with collaboration, investment, technology and those all-important behaviour shifts, the SDG goal is still achievable. “Whenever we prioritise something as an industry we do well,” says Singleton. 

This article was initially published as the cover story of Just Food’s September digital magazine