The towering food waste problem
Expiration dates used to mark the end of the line for untold food items at Metro stores across Quebec. These days, however, those little printed numbers on bags of lettuce and hunks of sandwich meat mark a new beginning.
Giving food a fresh start is something that Danielle Picard, a Metro store manager in the suburbs of Montreal, takes seriously.
“The day before the expiration date, I have it taken off [the shelf ] and put in the freezer,” says Picard. Twice every week, staff at Picard’s store fill up 60 bins with meat, cheese and other perishables so that food bank Moisson Montréal can pick it up and redistribute it.
“We don’t throw anything in the trash anymore,” she says. “It either goes to [food bank] Moisson Montréal or to the organics.” The effort adds up: with 65 Metro locations taking part in Quebec, over the next few years, Moisson Montréal expects to redistribute 40,000 kilograms of food every month.
Picard’s work is part of a growing movement in the global grocery game: as the issue of food waste gains traction in the public sphere, companies are learning that it isn’t just good for the environment, it’s also good business.
Today, the Western world discards nearly half the food it produces. In Canada alone, food waste is pegged at $31 billion, according to a recent study from Value Chain Management International (VCMI).
While the garbages and garburators of consumers eat up much of that (around 47 percent, according to VCMI), the grocery industry—from the farm to the sales floor—is responsible for nearly as much (around 44 percent). With growing awareness, especially in the face of drought and climate change, comes growing accountability, and there are indications that Canada’s big grocers are plotting a major assault on food waste.
The first steps, such as giving away food, are encouraging. But systemic change is needed to really address the issue. Can an industry known for its slim margins and complicated supply chains fundamentally rewrite its playbook?
The war against food waste is a worldwide concern. In the UK, for example, discarded food is used as fuel to power a Sainsbury’s superstore in Staffordshire, England, and the chain’s Food Rescue app helps educate consumers about conservation.
Instead of tossing out food leftovers, consumers can enter foods into the app and get hundreds of recipes that use them. Google then tracks the data on saved food and enters it into a leaderboard to display which parts of the U.K. are saving the most food.
Tesco has also taken up the challenge, admitting that most of the 54,400 tonnes of food that it threw out last year could have been salvaged. Recently, the company announced a new partnership with charity FoodShare to ensure that food is diverted to the needy.
In the U.S., Doug Rauch, the former president of Trader Joe’s, recently launched Daily Table, a store that sells discounted food donated by wholesalers after it didn’t sell.
Likewise, U.S. chain Hy-Vee is implementing a new compost program at 25 stores in Nebraska. All told, those stores expect to divert 70,000 kilograms of waste a month.
Perhaps the most headline-worthy food waste effort in recent history came from France, where the federal government has banned grocery stores from throwing out unsold food that’s still safe to eat. But in Canada and U.S., the stores are out in front of government.
Similar to Metro’s program, B.C.-based Sobeys banner Thrifty Foods has partnered with the Food Share Network, the Victoria Foundation and the Rotary Clubs of Greater Victoria to get unsold produce to the community.
“Food waste is painful for everyone,” said Thrifty’s Ralf Mundel, senior director of operations, at the program launch in June. “As a community, we can do better.” The program diverts food headed for the bins and redistributes it to needy families in the Greater Victoria Area.
Likewise, one such district taking the lead is Metro Vancouver: last July after a six- month grace period, the region implemented new limits on organic waste.
Vancouver’s senior engineer of solid waste services, Marian Kim, says the local government has hired inspectors to check garbage trucks as they bring their loads to city dumps. If organic waste makes up more than a quarter of the load, hefty charges ensue.
“Some of the haulers, I believe, have installed a shared fee to their clients,” says Kim. “It’s very easy to charge that back. Ultimately, it’s going to translate to higher costs [for grocers].” While stats for waste loads directly related to grocery stores weren’t available, it seems businesses are getting the message.
Inspectors last summer found that 27 loads contained more than the allowable amount of food waste, which is well below one percent of those inspected.
The broken telephone game
Loblaws and Sobeys didn’t give interviews when approached for this story, but both have made their waste diversion figures public. While these numbers don’t break out food waste from overall waste (which would presumably include materials such as plastic and cardboard), figures from Loblaws show it diverted 86 percent of distribution centre–generated waste nationally in 2014.
That was up five percent from the previous year. The result was mainly thanks to new organics programs at two major distribution centres in Quebec and Ontario. For its part, Sobeys showed a 52% increase of waste diversion in 2014, compared to 2008, for its corporate stores.
While there’s no indication of how much of that is actual food waste, it seems to be a move in the right direction.
Other Canadian grocers are also doing their part to help. David Kalmanovitch, owner of Edmonton’s Earth General Store, a small shop that sells organics and other environmentally conscious products, speaks to a common industry mentality that simply doesn’t make sense to him. “The industry has this idea that if there are five mouldy bananas in a case, they’ll turn around to the supplier, make a claim for it and throw the case out.”
That thinking doesn’t fly at his store, which is staffed by what Kalmanovitch calls “anti-wasters.” Rather than toss less-than-perfect food, the store hosts dinners cooked with scraps alongside the city’s Alder Food Security Society as part of its efforts to cut waste.
Along with cutting waste at the store level, experts say the grocery industry has a valuable opportunity to educate consumers about throwing away perfectly edible food.
In the UK, this educational push is being led by the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), a charity focused on waste reduction.
While WRAP also works with retailers to collaboratively cut waste from the supply chain, the “Love Food, Hate Waste” publicity campaign has shown success through raising awareness, communicating the issue to consumers and showing how food waste is damaging the environment—and the pocketbooks— of shoppers. (Metro Vancouver has also licensed the “Love Food, Hate Waste” model as a way to educate residents.)
In fact, a spokesperson for WRAP says that in the UK, food waste is down 21 percent since the program launched in 2007, generating total consumer savings of about the equivalent of $27 billion.
“A key way of informing people is through our work with retailers, who are uniquely positioned to impart information directly, and on a wide scale, to those shopping in their stores.”
Jordan Figueiredo, a passionate waste advocate, also spends a lot of time thinking about the notion of shifting consumer tastes. One of his projects is attacking the estimated 20 to 40 percent of U.S. food waste that occurs when farmers deem “ugly” produce unfit for sale.
Calling his project “low-hanging fruit,” Figueiredo’s Twitter handle, @UglyFruitAndVeg, has amassed more than 19,000 followers by tweeting clever pictures of funny looking fruit and veggies. (Sample tweet: a double-headed carrot resembling the two-finger peace sign, carrying the hashtag #MakeSaladNotWar.) He’s hoping some of the big stores in the U.S. get onboard.
“It’s fun and it brings in more store traffic. It should be a no-brainer for grocers.”
It seems Loblaws would agree. Earlier this year, the company launched its line of “No Name Naturally Imperfect” produce, which sells less-than-perfect fruit and vegetables, including apples and potatoes, at up to a 30 percent discount in select Loblaws stores.
In many ways, these efforts and advocates are chipping away at the core of the issue: systemic waste.
Martin Gooch, the Oakville, Ont.-based CEO of VCMI, believes he has a partial answer. A renowned food waste expert, Gooch says the industry needs a wake-up call: “Reducing waste isn’t just a ‘do-gooder’ thing; you can look at it purely from dollars and cents perspective.”
When we include inputs such as energy, labour and transportation, Gooch believes food waste figures in Canada are closer to $100 billion annually.
That’s more than the combined margins for the entire grocery industry.
“Our industry is pretty adversarial,” says Gooch. He believes different sectors should strive to work together to avoid creating more waste.
As it stands now, he sees the grocery system reacting to changes in consumer demand that have been exaggerated and skewed, which can then impact the supply chain as orders move through the system.
It’s a bit like a game of broken telephone: since producers and retailers don’t communicate and share their numbers, suppliers all the way up the chain get a distorted view of what they need to serve their own customers.
To compensate for a muddled supply chain, the industry has upped the volume. That leads to waste. And the closer we get to retail, the more skewed the supply chain.
But by working together, the entire industry could improve its margins—and its profits. How? Farmers, processors and retailers need to step out of their silos and stop distorting the supply chain.
“The industry needs to rethink the whole concept,” says Gooch.
In recent years, Sainsbury’s has done so by pruning its list of suppliers, creating agriculture development groups to connect with farmers and urging its partners to invest collaboratively. Likewise, Tesco is planning to cut its product range by 30% in order to get its business plan on a more sustainable path.
Behind the scenes, some of Canada’s big players are also working to shift the model. “They are not shouting about it because it can create a competitive advantage, but I’m expecting some announcements later this year.”
In the meantime, grocers will continue to battle against each other and an inefficient system. As Gooch says, “Consumers are busy picking off deals, while retailers and suppliers are busy picking off each other.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Canadian Grocer.