From manufacturers throwing away imperfect vegetables, through to consumers over-purchasing, the fresh food industry is facing one of its toughest challenges – how to minimise food waste. As a nation, we’re wasting £17 billion worth of food and drink every year, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that MPs have warned the government it needs to do more to tackle the growing issue. It is however comforting to know that there is a huge opportunity to reduce unnecessary waste at every level.

It’s interesting to see the innovative ideas supermarkets are now launching to tackle the waste issue. Sainsbury’s for example, has recently launched it’s new ‘Smart Fresh’ labels on own-brand cooked ham, that changes colour based on how long the package has been open. According to Wrap, Brits are throwing away 1.9 million slices of ham every day at a cost of over £170m every year, so the new heat and temperature sensitive labels act as a reminder for reducing the amount of unnecessary food waste.

However, contrary to this new innovation there is no research that says the biggest amount of waste is lost because the product goes out of date. Usually, waste happens because the consumer buys too much of a product due to them not knowing how much they need. Over purchasing is also often encouraged by the supermarkets through ‘buy-one-get-one-free’ offers which entice the customer to spend more. This means greater stock is required while, to the consumer, these are ‘nice to haves' that might be wasted, rather than necessities. 

The industry needs to focus on where the biggest waste problems exist, and educate the customer at the same time. This needs to be a two-pronged approach focusing on forecasting and perception.

Forecasting

When it comes to forecasting, retailers already invest very heavily in getting this right, but there will always be drivers that can’t be controlled, like the weather. Therefore, customers’ expectations must be managed. Pret excel in this area by being clear that when fresh produce has gone from the shelves, there is no more available. They don’t sell yesterday’s product today and customers aren’t surprised if they have sold out.

Balancing availability against freshness and the potential for waste is often difficult to get right for retailers, but in general the bias is strongly towards availability. That not only causes food waste at the store (by having to markdown products to clear them) but also at home, where consumers take home products with less shelf life than they otherwise would have.

Perception

The grocery industry recognises consumers are picky when it comes to how their food is presented. Through working with some of the UK’s biggest food manufacturers, we have recently discovered that initial raw material preparation is often the biggest waste factor, losing as much as 30% of the purchased volume. This often includes over-peeling a raw material to reduce the number of blemishes, indicating the need for consumers to be reminded that there is nothing wrong with wonky vegetables, reducing the amount of perfectly good produce going to waste. This is the biggest untapped area of waste.

So, if the evidence points towards investing in forecasting and tackling perceptions of over purchasing and visually imperfect produce, why are Sainsbury’s investing in smart food packaging? Well, it’s a great way to get into the hearts and minds of shoppers. The industry knows consumers are passionate about food waste and this will have elevated Sainsbury’s in the minds of the consumer thanks to the array of recent media coverage.

Nevertheless, moving away from over buying comes down to raising awareness of waste and so changing mindsets of consumers.

We believe the industry has an obligation to educate on how we all can reduce food waste and this is a fantastic start by the likes of Sainsbury’s and the many other initiatives that are being rolled out by the other grocery retailers. Everyone can and should help to tackle food waste, from production, to the sorting and display staff and finally the consumer. Improved forecasting accuracy, stricter controls within the production process and reducing unnecessary waste by embracing visually imperfect produce are all ways in which the industry can tackle food waste and become more sustainable.

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