The average consumer is not aware of the staggering and depressing extent of food wastage and food loss in retail.
If food has not been sold by its best before date, or if it is unsold close to, or past the best before date, retailers can send product back to the processor or manufacturer, and charge the supplier of the product accordingly.
Consumers tend not to purchase a product when shelves or bins are only part-filled or nearing empty. A fear of being penalized by their customers if 100% on-shelf availability is not met drives suppliers to keep excess product on hand or ensure it is available at short notice. This fear encourages overproduction in primary production, processing and manufacturing.
We do not buy imperfect fruits and vegetables and will sift through bins, bruising the fruit in the process and only selecting what we deem “perfect.” Produce can also be bruised or spoiled by untrained or inattentive staff. Produce that is not sold is typically sent to landfill, unless the retailer is connected to a food rescue operation.
When distribution centres have excess inventory, products are unexpectedly pushed to retail stores. This leads to loss occurring in the store and, often, stores having insufficient time to arrange for these products to be rescued before they spoil.
Problems in rescuing and donating food
1. Confusion about when food is safe to donate
Public health authorities commonly promote a “when in doubt, throw it out,” philosophy towards food that could be donated. The lack of clear and robust guidance surrounding the management of excess safe-to-eat foods leads to current rules mandated by provincial and municipal governments being interpreted and acted upon differently. This results in edible foods going to landfill. There are no consistent public health regulations; regulations differ even within the same province, as it is up to municipalities to execute them. The result is confusion among food businesses about when and how they can donate excess product. The system is equally confusing for food rescue organizations to navigate and to assure food donors of the correct process.
What to do: Develop clear testing protocols to assess safety of food for circumstances where businesses are in a position to donate i.e. after a refrigeration/freezer malfunction.
2. Perceived or real cost and complexity of donation versus waste management
Reducing the cost of labour as a percentage of overall sales has been a priority for businesses in the competitive food sector. Margins are small, competition is fierce, and customers are demanding low prices. Processes that are inefficient and/or require additional staff time are being eliminated.
In order to prepare food for donation, resources need to be dedicated to sort, package, store and process donations so they can be picked up by recipient agencies. This takes staff time and costs money.
What to do: Develop standardized operating procedures across food rescue landscape to reduce the cost and complexity of donating, and build awareness of best practices that reduce complexity.