Data is Key to Food Sustainability
There has been a plethora of recent initiatives to tackle an estimated £3 billion of food wasted by the UK's food service and hospitality sector every year. These include 'Step Up to the Plate' which encourages organisations to commit to measuring and reducing their waste, 'Guardians of Grub’ from Wrap', and 'Food waste, Bad taste' from the Sustainable Restaurant Association.
Whilst the government is to be commended for committing to halve food waste by 2030, its preferred method for achieving the target - convincing half of the country's 250 largest food businesses to start measuring, reporting and acting on food waste this year under the Food Waste Reduction Roadmap developed by IGD (a research and training charity), will require a significant change of mindset.
Right now, many companies in the sector looking at food sustainability have passed the buck to those on the front line: signing up with charitable organisations such as FareShare which repurposes and redistributes surplus food. But is this enough?
James Persad, Head of Marketing and Communications at FareShare, says:
"Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of good food is wasted by the UK food industry every year. At the same time, millions of people are struggling to afford to eat. FareShare work addresses these two issues by redistributing food industry surplus, which would otherwise go to waste, to the people who need it most. Just last year, FareShare saved nearly 20,000 tonnes of food from going to waste. That surplus food was enough for 46.5 million meals, an incredible amount when you consider that an estimated 8.4 million people in the UK are struggling to afford to eat. Yet we only access 7 per cent of the food available in the UK supply chain. The rest ends up in landfill, becomes animal feed or power as anaerobic digestion, so there is a lot more work to be done.
"Food waste is not just a social issue, it’s also an environmental one. When we waste food, we're also wasting all the resources that went into growing it. Once food ends up in the landfill it’s also a major driver of climate change so by dealing with the social aspects of food waste, FareShare also has the opportunity to help tackle a major environmental issue.
"The good news is that thanks to new grant funding from DEFRA to offset the costs of redistributing their edible surplus to good causes, FareShare can now help food companies unlock more surplus from their operations. The fund will make it easier and more affordable for businesses to send their surplus to frontline charities."
Despite the "good news", many companies are not actively monitoring and measuring their entire food preparation process to better understand the causes of waste in the first place.
Attitudes are changing, with the idea that wastage is an inevitable byproduct of food production, in particular, increasingly being challenged. Given the economic challenges surrounding the issue, the financial benefits of addressing waste are also compelling. According to research from Wrap, the average benefit-cost ratio for food waste reduction was 7:1 over a three-year time frame. And data driven understanding is key to achieving this benefit - from measuring food waste, to rethinking inventory and purchasing practices, and reducing food over production.
Some steps are easier than others, however. Food waste is highly visual, and with the right approach, companies can quickly map trends. Are some menu items routinely uneaten? Can portion sizes be reconsidered? Clearly it is easier to impose control within those mass market organisations with ubiquitous, often microwaved, food products. In many ways the trend towards fresh, local and healthier eating has made it more difficult to manage and reduce wastage. But measuring trends in food utilisation and consumption can quickly reveal opportunities to reduce portion size, tweak menus and rethink supply.
Cultural shifts in this area will also pay dividends. Change customer expectations by reducing the extensive menus, for example. It is far easier to predict demand and ensure consistent quality with a smaller product set, which will reduce waste; and publicising the sustainability goal will resonate with the customer base.
Companies also need to look beyond the kitchen and consider the end to end supply chain – and this too will require a change in attitude from the industry to achieve transparency and understanding.
Further, organisations with global supply chains will typically have no access to information from multiple manufacturers or 3PLs about wastage or fuel consumption, and will need to adopt a more collaborative collaborative approach to data sharing if food overproduction is to be addressed right from the beginning of the supply chain.