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How Do Food Businesses Manage Food Waste?

Food can end up as waste before it reaches us for several reasons, whether it’s safety concerns, supply chain inefficiencies, or lack of consumer demand. We take a look at how businesses manage food waste that is no longer available for human consumption.

When thinking of food waste, we often picture odds and ends from our kitchens that get tossed into the bin. But, food waste can take on several different and more useful forms in the previous stages. Food waste (or food loss) can also look like perfectly edible parts of crops that go unharvested, ‘ugly’ produce that doesn’t make the grade, foodstuff that gets packed into faulty boxes, edible bycatch fish tossed lifeless overboard, or surplus egg-shaped candy in the weeks following easter. So, how can businesses reduce and repurpose these different forms of waste?

5 Ways Businesses Manage Food Waste

Many researchers and policymakers have developed food waste management models based on the ‘reduce-reuse-recycle’ philosophy in recent years. The ‘food waste hierarchy’ model ranks how different ways of managing food waste compare to one another,  and is used by businesses widely in Europe as a decision-making tool.1, 2 The model recommends five ways of managing food waste, with some being more effective and sustainable than others. In order from  most to least favourable options, the decision-making process should look something like this:

1. Prevention of Food Waste

Avoiding food waste should be the top priority for all businesses in the food supply chain.1 Prevention of food waste is the most sustainable option. This involves avoiding excess production, practising the ‘first in, first out’ method (products with a closer expiry date are prioritised for sale), and improving the efficiency of supply chains and logistics.

2. Re-use of Food Waste

Whenever total prevention of waste is not possible, businesses are advised to redistribute their surplus food to food charities or those in need. This food ‘waste’ is still safe for consumption and should be of fairly good quality, but cannot be sold through retail channels for reasons such as cosmetic imperfections (‘ugly foods’) or faulty packaging. 

3. Recycle Food Waste

If the food is seen as unfit for redistribution for quality reasons, it is converted to feed for animals that are part of the food supply chain - whenever legally possible. For instance, stale, unpalatable bread (that is not yet mouldy) can be turned into pig feed. This way, the food still remains within the food supply chain and serves at least part of the purpose it was created for in the first place. If food is unsafe or unfit to be used as animal feed, it can be turned into compost at either industrial or local facilities.1 Although compost is not directly a part of the food chain, it can still be used to grow new food. 

Read How Pigs Can Help Reduce Food Waste.

4. Recovery Through Energy

Some food, however, might not be suitable for composting. This could be due to their chemical composition or biological or chemical contamination in the food. At this stage, food can be converted into energy through anaerobic digestion, where microorganisms transform the waste to create biofuel such as biogas.1

Biogas plant and farm
Biogas plant and farm (iStock/Getty)

5. Disposal of Food Waste (Landfill)

Food waste should only be sent to the landfill or broken down without recovering energy, if none of the previous four options are viable.

Learn how Sweden turns food waste into fuel.

How Food Waste Management Looks In Practice

While the food waste hierarchy might appear to be a straightforward decision-making tool, it is not always easy for businesses to follow it. For instance, a supermarket may not wish to donate its surplus to charity because this may highlight the inefficiencies in its supply chain. Another deterrent might be that hiring employees to manage the logistics of food donations could reduce the overall profits. Rigid food safety legislation might also prevent businesses from donating or converting their surplus into animal feed - in some cases, regulations simply disallow certain foods from re-entering the food chain due to potential biosecurity risks.

Conflicting Policies

Two policy areas may also unintentionally end up competing with each other.3 One example of this is when governments incentivize the production of biofuels by offering businesses attractive subsidies. Even though other food waste management options are recommended before converting food waste into biofuel, businesses might end up skipping to the biofuel route to gain these government subsidies. 

For businesses to be able to choose the most sustainable option of food waste management without facing repercussions, various policy areas such as food safety, agriculture, fisheries, bioenergy, and waste management would have to work together to ensure that they do not compete or come in conflict with each other.3 Food industry interest groups and governments must also come to an understanding regarding topics such as food donation or charity when considering food safety.4 

What’s More Sustainable?

While the food waste hierarchy provides a general overview about the sustainability of various reclaiming or disposal methods, businesses can also decide on the best food waste management option based on an environmental impact assessment exercise, such as life cycle assessment.5 For instance, if a warehouse with a surplus stock of cookies is located several hundred kilometres away from a food charity but only a few kilometres away from an animal feed factory, it might be more sustainable to convert the cookies to animal feed instead of donating them to charity. 

Choosing between sustainable food waste management options can be a complicated task, particularly for businesses that must balance ethical waste management with their income streams. A cost-benefit analysis can help businesses choose the most economically feasible and sustainable option to manage their operations, including reusing food waste and surplus.1

The United Nations’ Sustainable Goal 12.3 aims to halve global food waste by 2030. To achieve this, food businesses, together with consumers, must treat food surplus and waste streams as valuable resources that must not be carelessly discarded. In the years to come, progress in technology and policy is likely to make it easier to choose the most sustainable route to manage food waste. Meanwhile, businesses are gradually shifting towards a greener and more circular future by making food waste prevention a core part of their operations. 

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