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A Trail of Breadcrumbs….and Plenty Else

A Trail of Breadcrumbs….and Plenty Else

In the previous post we reviewed some of the distressing statistics behind food waste, which might have left you feeling somewhat shaken. I can’t say that the second installment of this series will be more uplifting, but if understanding the scope of an issue is the first step towards change, then the second is understanding the process behind the issue in order to find potential ways to change it. With that in mind, today’s post will walk you through parts of the food supply chain in an attempt to better understand where food is being lost.

The modern food supply chain is global, thereby often long and convoluted. There are a plethora of corporations and other middle men between the farmer and the consumer, but in general, the food supply chain can be broken into two main categories: upstream and downstream. Upstream sectors include food production and post-harvest storage and handling, while downstream sectors include processing, distribution, retail and foodservice, and consumption. No matter what, food and the food supply chain always starts with the farm.

Farming, at its core, is the production of food. While we like to think that the farmer winds up selling all of his or her crops, this is simply not the case. In fact, agricultural production accounts for approximately one third of all food waste in the entire food supply chain, with the most loss coming from cereal grains and vegetables. Food waste at the production level occurs for both environmental and economic factors. Environmental factors are difficult to control and cause food to be wasted because of pest damage, disease, or poor weather conditions at the time of harvest. Economic factors include low market prices coupled with high crop yield, or labor shortages.

The food that is successfully harvested is ultimately sold. Whether the product is meat, eggs, produce, dairy, or any number of other items, it often goes through a post-harvest storage and handling stage before processing. The losses here can be enormous, and in developed countries occur primarily due to culling, which is the selection and removal of product based on various market specifications such as size, shape, and color. In developing countries, a majority of these losses are attributed to inadequate storage facilities. Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, loses a third of all food waste in this stage of the food supply chain. At the point where we transition from upstream to downstream areas, roughly half of total food waste is accounted for, and the consumer is still far, far away.

The processing step is next in our journey, and is fairly self-explanatory. This is where meat products may get the fat cut off or the bones removed; fruits and vegetables may get peeled or sliced; or oats and honey get turned into granola bars. In large part, this step has become fairly efficient due to industrialization and mechanization. In the U.S., processing accounts for approximately just 10% of all food waste.

Distribution is next, and is the process of getting food from point A to point B, whether that is a restaurant, grocery store, or farmer’s market. This journey can happen via plane, boat, or truck and can end up taking weeks, making holding conditions vital. Technological improvements in refrigeration have dramatically cut food waste in distribution, but have not eliminated it altogether.  Packages can break, food can sit too long on holding docks or in other unrefrigerated environments, or food can be rejected upon delivery.  Rejected shipments can sometimes make it to a different supplier or a food bank, but most of the time, they end up in the landfill. Fresh fruits and vegetables are highly susceptible to spoilage in the distribution phase, and approximately 12% are lost here.

The final step before the consumer is the retail supplier or foodservice operation. Food waste here is substantial and was estimated at $43 million dollars in retail suppliers alone in the U.S. in 2008. Because these businesses have such a large buying power, they often have influence in other areas of the food supply chain, such as farming or the post-harvest culling process.  Grocery store chains waste huge amounts of food due to overstocked shelves, unregulated “best by” dates, and aesthetic specifications ("how round is that apple?", for example). Restaurants may care less about raw ingredient aesthetics, but still  4 to 10 percent of food purchased is lost before finally reaching the consumer. That can translate to a lot of dollars for independent and chain operations alike. 

Finally we have the consumer. Though the consumer is the desired destination for food in the supply chain, much less than half of all food produced makes it to this point. If you are reading this, you are a consumer. Think back on your own habits. Why do you waste food? Did leftovers go bad? Is your shopping cart full of impulse buys? Are you unsure if that milk in the fridge is ok to use, since it’s three days past the “enjoy by” date? All of these reasons are contributors to the nearly $1,365 to $2,275 annually wasted in food for a family of four. Awareness and education can play a significant role in reducing food waste in this ubiquitous area of the chain. 

As discussed in our first post of this series, nearly all of the food wasted at every step along the food supply chain ends up in the same place – the  landfill.  Of course, there are actions that can be taken to reduce food waste in every step of the chain, but the third and final installment of this series will focus on how foodservice operations in particular can get food waste under control. Stay tuned!

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