New Tools To Fight Food Waste: Old School And One Compliments Of AI

For more than a decade, the food industry and shoppers have been lectured to, screamed at and pleaded with to reduce food waste; and for good reasons.

September 20, 2017

Originally published on Forbes.com.

For more than a decade, the food industry and shoppers have been lectured to, screamed at and pleaded with to reduce food waste; and for good reasons. The USDA estimates that here in the US food waste is between 30-40 percent of the food supply, which translated to approximately 133 billion pounds of food and over $161 billion in 2010 (the last year measured). The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that just over 21 percent of municipal solid waste comes from food, which has serious environmental impacts associated with landfilling food, including quickly creating methane gas; and is the single largest component going into municipal landfills.

On June 4, 2013 the USDA and EPA launched the US Food Waste Challenge calling on the entire food supply chain to join efforts to reduce and better manage food waste with the goal of reducing food waste by 50 percent by the year 2030. The Challenge lists three major initiatives to accomplish this goal: Reduce, Recover and Recycle. It details that to Reduce, improved product development, storage, shopping/ordering, marketing, labeling and cooking methods are all needed.

A pipe used for transporting methane gas runs along the ground at an open landfill cell at the Melbourne Regional Landfill site, operated by at Cleanaway Waste Management Ltd., in Ravenhall, Victoria, Australia, on Wednesday, June 14, 2017.  Photographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

The Natural Resources Defense Council’s excellent 2017 report WASTED: How America Is Losing Up To 40 Percent Of Its Food From Farm To Fork To Landfill estimates that about 20 percent of all food waste is a result of consumers misreading expiration dates that today are focused more on peak freshness or flavor rather than the date the foods and beverages would actually spoil and present a food safety issue; and that 43 percent of all food waste is generated by consumer households (the leading cause). The leading categories for food waste from both consumers and grocery retailers are dairy products, followed by vegetables, fruit and grain products that combined amount to over 65 percent. NRDC also points to the fact that the labels often contain multiple dates, inconsistent wording and that the lack of education around their meanings cause consumers to discard food prematurely. There is no Federal regulation for date labels and only 41 states and the District of Columbia require date labels on some foods, not all, and the types of foods and rules differ.

In December of 2016 the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service released new guidance (not regulation) that recommended to retailers and manufacturers to use “Best if Used by” to indicate the quality of the product – i.e., not when the product should be discarded. The following month the Food Marketing Institute and Grocery Manufacturers of America announced their recommendations for the industry to voluntarily limit the use of labels to “Best if Used by” for quality and “Use By” as the designation to indicate degradation of product that could lead to food safety issues.

The Consumer Good Forum, the global industry group that spans across 70 countries with top leaders from over 400 retailers and consumer packaged goods companies and Champions 12.3 a coalition dedicated to achieving the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, announced this morning their program to standardize food date labels worldwide by 2020 and goes into more specifics with their recommendations. The first, which is significant, is that there should only be “one label at a time” on a product. The second, is similar to what GMA and FMI announced, but specifies that “Use by” should be used on perishable items and “Best if Used by” for non-perishable foods. Lastly, they urge their members to educate consumers to better understand what these date labels actually mean. These are all voluntary recommendations; and until we have uniform policy there will still be confusion.

Will Alexa be the ultimate solution?

For those still confused consumers some of whom create that 43 percent of food waste there is the “Save the Food” Alexa Skill  created by NRDC and the Ad Council that might well be the tool that can make that 50 percent reduction by 2030 a reality. You can ask Alexa how to make it easier to prevent waste at home, or specifics on how to store a particular food, whether a specific fruit or vegetable should be tossed, or how to thaw that frozen steak that has been sitting there for a couple of years.

eMarketer pegs the number of Millennials, Generation Xers and Baby Boomers who now use a virtual assistant at 60.5 million, a significant number already which expected to grow to over 66 million by 2019; and doesn’t include those in Generation Z which today accounts for over 23 million people and will represent 40% of all consumers by 2020 who are the most tech savvy consumers. By choosing to use Alexa, and hopefully other virtual assistants, “Save the Food” has a distinct advantage – being able to communicate in what will surely become a language of choice for those born after 1980. 

What about the other 57 percent of food waste?

Restaurants make up the largest share of food wasters at 18 percent followed by Grocery Stores & Distribution with 13 percent. There are programs being developed to reduce their waste as well. Brown’s ShopRite store in West Philadelphia and Drexel University’s Culinary Arts & Food Science Program who, as partners in the EPA’s Food Waste Challenge, are developing a new way to help the environment and feed hungry people. As common with many grocers, the produce department at Brown’s ShopRite stores would generally throw away less attractive or bruised vegetables and fruits. Although still nutritious, no one would ever buy them, so they ended up in those landfills. The Drexel students go to Brown’s ShopRite, collect the still usable fruits and vegetables, and experiment until they have turned the bounty into recipes that are nutritious and easy to prepare. Some of the recipes include fruit cobbler, strawberry jam, dried tomatoes, and stir-fried greens. The students then turn the recipes over to shelters and other food providers. Drexel's Food Lab also is working with restaurant chef in similar ways to reduce their food waste.

The ultimate retail solution however may be what a single store in Austin Texas called in.gredients does. Their mission is to achieve zero waste and according to their website, "We divert approximately 99% of our materials from the landfill and have sent zero pounds of food waste to the landfill since opening our doors in 2012." It's their philosophy, and that of their vendors that is making the difference along with their customers. They launched a $30,000 campaign on Indiegogo to fund an infrastructure investment "to keep the doors open and thrive." On March 1, 2017 they were 101% funded and here's what they are doing with the money.

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