Food waste – and finding ways to reduce it – is a major priority for every player in the global supply chain. We look at why it's important and target the three steps food businesses need to follow to make a difference. 

According to a 2023 study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), around one third of all food produced still ends up as food waste every single year. This vast amount of rotted or wasted food makes up half of all the greenhouse gas emissions created by the food system globally.  

In fact, in 2017, the UN body calculated that global food waste resulted in 9.3bn tonnes of CO2-equivalent (GtCO2e) emissions – which is roughly the same as the total combined emissions of the US and the EU that same year.  

Food waste prevention isn’t only a challenge for food and drink manufacturers of course. Nearly a fifth of all food loss occurs once a product has reached foodservice, retail or consumer households, say the UN 

That’s why the UN considers reducing food waste as a “triple win”. Not only would it help the world reach Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 to halve food waste per capita by 2030, but it would also save money for businesses and consumers alike, result in more available food, which in turn would mean that climate, water and land resources would be under less pressure.  


Why should the food industry act now? 

Obviously, driving progress toward international climate goals is one motivator, but there are other factors to consider.  

The economic impact   

Failing to address food waste within the value chain poses a significant risk to a businesses’ own bottom line. Experts estimate that the economic impact, excluding fish and seafood, amounts to £770 billion globally, with product loss as a result of damage, expired shelf life or oversupply all incurring steep financial penalties at the manufacturing and processing stages.

Hitting your environmental targets 

High levels of food waste can create insurmountable obstacles for any food and drink business trying to meet their own environmental targets. In addition to voluntary aims and initiatives, many countries now require businesses of a certain size to both track and report on carbon footprint, and also set out a clear roadmap for improvement. Failing to address food waste within such plans would be a huge missed opportunity.  

Brand reputation 

All businesses should consider the reputational impact of high levels of food loss within their value chain. Food waste ranks among the top three most significant food-related concerns that consumers have, according to a recent poll by MITRE and Gallup, only behind food prices and the healthiness of products. Failing to be seen to act on food waste could therefore risk the credibility of a product, undermining the brand values that are so instrumental to securing customer loyalty.  

So, what steps should food businesses be taking to reduce their food waste?  

1. Prioritise data-driven solutions  

Data-driven solutions are an important first step both when it comes to identifying the scale of food loss within the value chain and allowing managers to make the case for action to senior leadership.  

They help companies to identify hotspots, evaluate the efficacy of any existing policy measures, estimate the potential for material recovery and track progress towards internal or external targets.  

The integration of data-driven tools at a food processor or manufacturer, for example, can flag if a particular product is behind a disproportionate volume of food loss. This could trigger further investigation to identify the cause – be it surplus offcuts, short shelf-life or shortfalls in quality control – and allow businesses to make a targeted response toward food waste prevention.  

Emerging technologies within AI and machine learning can even be paired with data and analytics to automate solutions, be it to forecast demand more accurately and prevent oversupply, oversee quality control or monitor shelf life to prevent avoidable food loss.   

2. Adopt a strategic, sustainable disposal process

Some volume of waste is inevitable, of course.  

Which is why – in addition to addressing hotspots within the value chain – it’s also important for food businesses to adopt a more sustainable, environmentally friendly process for both the management and disposal of waste when it occurs. Doing so both mitigates the financial impact of food loss and helps to reduce its environmental impact.   

Many countries have established routes for redistribution of surplus food to the charity sector, for example. Though this doesn’t address the cost to businesses – indeed it can incur a small fee as a result of transportation - it does significantly reduce the carbon footprint incurred as a result of waste and can also help to support supplementary CSR targets, such as charitable giving.  

In some countries redistribution is even enforced. In France, for example, retailers of a certain size have been required to redistribute edible product to charity since 2016, with disposal or incineration of surplus products an offence under its Anti-Waste and Circular Economy law.  

Where food is no longer safe for human consumption however, a different set of laws and regulations come into force.  

In the UK, for example, all former foodstuffs are categorised according to their potential risk. The highest risk foods, such as raw animal products, cannot be used in animal feed or sent to landfill and must be disposed of via techniques such as incineration or pressure sterilisation. Lowest risk foods, such as bakery or confectionery, can be sent for use in animal farm feed.  

Each country will have its own rules around safe disposal of former foodstuffs however, that businesses must ensure familiarity with.  

3. Be proactive

The consequences of food waste on global sustainability are huge.  

And though they can’t address the issue alone, there’s no doubt that food businesses have a vital role to play in both food waste reduction and prevention.  

By investing in data-driven solutions that pinpoint the causes of waste and pairing this with a sustainable and strategic approach to disposal, they can help contribute to international progress while also limiting their own environmental impact and financial fallout as a result of food loss too.  

How can Foods Connected help? 

Foods Connected help food businesses to collect, manage and analyse their data to make informed decisions through a range of tools and services. Our technical teams have expertise in sustainable development to help your business set the right targets and meet your reporting requirements. Please get in touch for more information on how we can help you.  

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