Technological innovations work to address the issue of wasted food

As consumers become more aware of the amount of food that is being wasted not only in the home, but commercially as well, food retailers and restaurants are looking towards technology to ease the issue of waste.

Wasteless, capitalizing on “the internet of things,” is a startup that aims to be “the internet of groceries.” It does so by cataloging when a food is set to pass its best before or sell by date, and adjusts the price accordingly. The technology is automatic, saving the grocery store the time and staff resources to have to change the price manually. Food that is getting close to the end of its best by or sell by date can then be purchased at deep discounts by shoppers. By being able to sell the food instead of paying to dispose of it, it may assist grocery chains in reaching their “triple bottom line” of people, profit, and planet.

Additionally, this technology is working to help dispel some of the myths around best before dates, which many mistakenly believe refer to food safety. In reality, best before dates are indicators of freshness, and some do not even apply if the food has remained sealed/unopened.

More information about Wasteless can be found here.

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The Beauty of Ugly Fruit

There has been considerable attention given to Loblaws’ recent announcement of their “Naturally Imperfect “product line.  Naturally imperfect will introduce smaller or slightly misshapen food into grocery stores at a discount.  The idea is to reduce the amount of waste upstream in the value chain and to improve access to these products at lower prices.  Seems like a win win!   I’ve had the chance to speak about it several times and, as always, things become clearer after you’ve spoken so a blog post seemed like a great idea.

A Great Idea

Reducing food waste is a great idea.  Its not clear how much of some of this product is getting thrown out versus diverted into processing.  That’s why we need more research on food waste at all stages of the value chain (a shameless plug for our ongoing project).  What is clear is that some small produce is difficult to put through processing and is thrown out.

Improving access to affordable fruits and vegetables is a great idea.  The price for perfection is higher.  While we spend a lower proportion of our income on food than almost anywhere else in the world, we do have food insecure people and others who perhaps eat less fresh healthy produce than they might if it was more affordable.  Why should we hold everyone’s diet hostage to a misguided standard of beauty.  The nutrition is identical.

Raising awareness of food waste is a great idea.  Our research suggests that the more people think about food and waste, the less food they waste.  Just talking about the issue like this has the real potential to reduce household food waste – which we’ve measured at 4.5 kg per household per week.

Is there a downside?

There are folks at some farm organizations saying that this initiative has the potential to erode the prices they receive for their premium produce.  That might be true but its not clear that it will happen.

1 – The economics of this aren’t as clear as the critics might suggest.

  • if consumers don’t buy it, it won’t matter.  I hardly expect that everyone will buy naturally imperfect so premium products will still exist.  If lot’s of them buy it demand will drive the price up.
  • When prices are lower, total demand increases.  The increase in total demand may increase revenues rather than decrease them.  Its not clear what will happen but this is as plausible as decreased revenues.
  • Even if prices come down, the cost of production includes the produce that is thrown away.  Including that in the total sales means revenue should increase.
  • If the price for imperfect food that is not wasted is too low, the product will get diverted to processing markets rather than retail.  The market will figure it out.

2 – This is not the first time I’ve had someone say we should continue to waste food to support farm returns.  I had someone stand up once at a presentation and say we shouldn’t encourage household food waste reduction because it would lower demand and cost jobs and revenue in the production and processing sector.  Its heartbreaking to consider that we would produce food to throw out just to keep people employed.  Even if prices come down (which I argue above is not a sure thing), do we really want to use resources to produce product just to throw it away?  Consumers can and will make the choice.  Change happens.  This position is indefensible and unsustainable.  I can’t imagine making the argument in any other sector.  We should scrap cars off the assembly line just to keep people in Windsor and Oshawa employed?

We should celebrate this initiative.  We should buy these products.  We should expand it to other product.  We should expand it to other stores.  Everyone, including producers, processors and retailers will be better off in the long run.