There has been a lot of talk about the new law in France which will compel food retailers to donate unsold food rather than throw it out. Given our work in food waste, we’ve been asked a lot what our thoughts about it are. I’m scheduled for a 30 minute call in on radio this afternoon so thought I should pull my thoughts together and a blog post seems a reasonable approach to doing that.
First of all – reducing the amount of food that goes to landfill is a good thing. We should be looking at more ways to do that. Secondly, talking about food waste is a good thing. Higher awareness means lower waste – and not just at retail. Many Canadian retailers already divert product to food banks – largely from distribution centres. So what could possibly go wrong?
As always, the details will make all of the difference. Here are a couple of thoughts about implementation.
Where is the line? Some product that gets thrown out is clearly still edible and could be re-purposed. I was speaking to a student who regularly “liberates” food from behind food retailers just the other day. They found 8 wheels of brie and many potatoes and beets just the other day at a single retailer. I don’t know why it was thrown out but it was clearly still edible and was used. There is, however, also a significant volume of inedible spoilage. Who decides whats good and what isn’t? What happens to the stuff that isn’t? Will we burden charitable organizations with increased disposal costs? This needs to be figured out.
What is donatable? Fridge space is often an issue at food banks. What if they don’t want it? Some stuff simply doesn’t move well at a food bank. What if they don’t want it?
Who pays? There is already some donation. We don’t have a good sense of how much edible food is thrown out – although we know there is some. If retailers have to pay to sort and ship it to charities (assuming they have the capacity or ship it to multiple locations) this needs to be figured out. The classic operations management newsvendor problem suggests that as disposal costs go up, optimal order quantity goes down. Availability may decrease. That may be a good thing. Diversion (to charitites, animal feed or others uses) is a secondary objective to not generating the waste in the first place (apologies for the suggestion that providing food to the less fortunate as waste). Grocery stores may be more inclined to run out than to have to manage the diversion of excess. That may be a very good thing but it doesn’t increase the food going to food insecure individuals.
In principle this is a good idea. It remains to be seen whether it truly is in practice.
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.