How Can Digital Traceability, Safety and Quality Technologies in the Supply Chain Help Reduce Food Waste?
By Claire Zoellner
PhD Food Safety Scientist
September 29, 2020
On December 19, 2019, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) created two new international days addressing issues related to food and agriculture. September 29, 2020 was established as the first International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste (IDAFLW).
“By highlighting the value of fruits and vegetables, and the damage caused by loss and waste, the UN has taken a decisive step to promote fairer, greener, more efficient food systems,” said Maria Helena Semedo, FAO Deputy Director-General for Climate and Natural Resources.
According to FAO, around 14 percent of the food produced globally is lost between harvest and retail. Significant quantities are also wasted in retail and at the consumption level.
Every year, American consumers, businesses, and farms spend $218 billion, or 1.3% of GDP, growing, processing, transporting, and disposing food that is never eaten. That’s 52 million tons of food sent to landfills annually, plus another 10 million tons that is discarded or left unharvested on farms, states ReFed.
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic increased these numbers due to the shutting down of restaurants and the food service industry, as well as restrictions in transportation. Farmers were left with a surplus of produce after the shutdowns. Dairy Farmers of America estimated that farmers were dumping as many as 3.7 million gallons of milk each day. The surprising plunge in demand that accompanied the pandemic forced many producers to let their crops rot, as the cost of harvesting and picking them would only increase the financial crisis caused by COVID-19.
As the supply chain was disrupted by the pandemic, the needs and opportunities for improvement were brought to the attention of the whole world. Through both collaborations across the supply chain from farm to fork and education of consumers, the percentage of food waste and loss can be decreased.
Technology will continue to play a key part in reducing food waste globally. Small changes in the supply chain can have enormous impact, not only economically but environmentally as well; the less food left to rot, the fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
Proper storage conditions and infrastructure preserve food quality to ensure maximum shelf life is achieved and thus contribute to minimizing food waste. Real-time data of storing, freezing, and shipping conditions enhance decision-making throughout the food supply chain, impacting the distribution and retail of food, as well as the amount lost and wasted by consumers.
Digital Food Safety and Quality Assurance (FSQA) platforms not only assure instant visibility throughout the entire supply chain, but also deliver insights that can be applied on the spot. Understanding why certain production lots have fewer damages and defects, as well as making the needed changes to soil amendments, pesticides, and fertilizers throughout the season reduces not only the amount of food lost but also the production costs.
Consumers are also becoming more interested in the origins and quality of their food, making both traceability and transparency into supply chain practices more relevant than ever, especially with the FDA’s New Era of Smarter Food Safety initiative. Being able to trace the product to the source gives consumers confidence in what they are buying, and in the event of a product recall less product is wasted since issues are pin-pointed and easier to identify. Advances in the integration of digital FSQA platforms with food packaging and barcoding make this information available to consumers so they can make informed decisions and alter their consumption habits.
Creating an IDAFLW to highlight both the value of fresh produce for health and wellbeing and the impact that its loss and waste has on the environment will catalyze new local and global partnerships aimed at developing solutions for more sustainable food systems. The challenges brought by COVID-19 have facilitated the adoption of new approaches to enhancing productivity along the food supply chain. Moving forward, accessibility to and widespread implementation of food safety and quality technology will help supply chains, individuals, and organizations achieve global food waste reduction goals. One thing was made clear from the first IDAFLW: we all have a role to play in reducing food waste!