Christina Khoo opened the second day of the workshop as moderator of a panel on innovations in food data and analytics, including tools to help mitigate food waste across sectors and the nutritional implications of food waste.
Steven Finn, Leanpath, focused on scaling food waste prevention through measurement, data, and analytics. He began by pointing out that one issue on which there should be broad consensus is the need to reduce waste across the food supply chain. He emphasized that the best way to reduce food waste is to prevent it from occurring in the first place, and stated that prevention can best be achieved through measurement. He also suggested that with respect to food waste reduction, “behavior change is everything.” And he asserted that scaling of food waste prevention programs is possible.
Global Burden of Food Waste
According to Finn, it is unsustainable from both social and environmental perspectives for the world to waste between 30 and 50 percent of the global food supply annually. Accordingly, he said, there is increasing momentum behind Target 12.3 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which calls for cutting global food waste in half
by 2030 and reducing food loss along supply chains. According to Finn, wasting food exacerbates problems of hunger and environmental harm due to water consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. He believes that the global problems of hunger and climate change will not be resolved without efforts to address food waste.
A Focus on Food Waste Prevention
Finn described Leanpath as a pioneer in food waste prevention, having invented food waste prevention technology for the food service sector in 2004. He informed the audience that the company has four offices around the globe and operates in more than 30 countries and all 50 states, and its customers include major companies, such as Aramark, Google, Ikea, and Sodexo. Focusing on food waste prevention, Finn explained, allows the company to achieve maximum social and environmental impact across the food supply chain by preventing unnecessary resource consumption and avoiding the emissions impact of food that would otherwise go to waste.
Finn suggested that to achieve the 50 percent global reduction in food waste outlined in SDG Target 12.3, it is important to shift attention to preventing the occurrence of food waste (i.e., source reduction) as opposed to the traditional focus on downstream recovery efforts. The key to preventing food waste in the food service sector at scale, according to Finn, is the use of automated tools for tracking and measurement to drive operational and behavior change in kitchens. He described the “elephant in the kitchen” as the high levels of food waste that have long been present in kitchens, effectively hiding in plain sight because of cultural norms around abundant food. Finn outlined two key areas of food waste to be addressed in the food service sector: (1) preconsumer kitchen waste due to overproduction, spoilage, and trimming (which is controlled by kitchen staff); and (2) postconsumer “plate” waste (which is controlled largely by guests, but also influenced by portion sizes). He stated that consumers can reduce plate waste through behavior change.
Finn explained further that food is often wasted in food service as a way to manage risks. In particular, food service professionals never want to run out of food, which often leads to excess production. According to Finn, front-line food service workers have the greatest role to play in reducing food waste because they see exactly how much food is needed and how much is being wasted each day and are capable of adjusting production levels and maximizing food utilization. Leanpath connects these workers at client companies to the global food waste challenge and energizes them to make a difference.
Food Waste Measurement as a Prevention Strategy
Leanpath’s vision, Finn continued, is to ensure a sustainable future by eliminating global food waste, and the company’s mission is to make food waste prevention an everyday practice in the world’s kitchens. The company believes that organizations can and should take control of their food waste using a comprehensive food waste prevention strategy.
Finn reported that Leanpath has enabled clients to prevent more than 40 million pounds of food waste since 2014, an environmental impact equivalent to removing the annual emissions of 27,000 cars and saving more than 16 billion gallons of water. He highlighted a measurement gap related to food waste, as many organizations do not understand how much food they are wasting, nor do they have measurement programs in place. In accordance with the idea that “what gets measured gets managed,” Finn said, organizations can track each occurrence of excess food in their kitchens with Leanpath and thereby establish a baseline level with which to track progress and measure changes over time, obtain data on the root causes of food waste, facilitate solutions in the kitchen, and engage people in the initiative.
Finn emphasized three key points related to closing the food measurement gap: first, the path to meaningful food waste reduction requires a focus on prevention; second, measurement is the optimal route to prevention; and third, automation is the optimal approach to measurement. He pointed out that automation is three times as effective as manual tracking, saving organizations time and money. Finn explained that the process of tracking with Leanpath’s integrated hardware and software tools creates a cloud-based database that allows organizations to analyze the causes of food waste and take action to reduce it in the short term while preventing its recurrence in the future. At the same time, the process allows organizations to drive behavior change among staff, connecting front-line food service workers to the food waste challenge and creating a culture focused on food waste prevention.
Business Case for Food Waste Prevention
According to Finn, food waste reduction has become a basic expectation for food service organizations, and regulatory, environmental, and social trends highlight the need for prevention to be a key component of a reduction strategy. He outlined five ways in which wasted food “costs” organizations: (1) the cost of the food itself, (2) the utility and water costs involved in production, (3) the labor costs of production, (4) lost sales and profit from the waste, and (5) the disposal costs. Thus, he stated, reducing food waste yields significant financial benefit. He also identified additional
benefits, including reduced environmental externalities in the form of decreased GHG emissions and reduced water consumption, creation of a more engaged workforce, and positive societal recognition for leadership in sustainability.
Delivering on Food Waste Prevention
Finn stressed that delivering on food waste prevention requires behavior change at scale and that metrics influence behavior. Measurement, he explained, includes identifying what is being wasted and why, establishing goals for improvement, and tracking progress. He described the process as follows. Leanpath provides a suite of customized tracking devices designed to meet the needs of each client site, such as bench scales with photography, mobile tablet solutions, and floor scales. Gamification is built into the tracking tools to further energize employees. The data that are tracked flow to the analytics program Leanpath Online, which allows food service organizations to view and organize the data in myriad ways to drive that food waste reduction. For example, data can be viewed for a single site, multiple sites, or across the entire organization. The process is augmented by additional features, such as goal setting to target specific items and real-time alerts that allow for immediate intervention on specific food waste transactions. According to Finn, data motivate action and inspire measurable improvement.
Finn also described Leanpath Spark, a postconsumer product that allows food service organizations to engage consumers in the food waste reduction process. The product displays impactful waste data and messaging to spark behavior change at the consumer level.
In conclusion, Finn emphasized the importance of food waste prevention, reiterating that it will not be possible to meet the global goal of 50 percent reduction in food waste through recovery efforts alone. He therefore recommends shifting the focus on reducing food waste downstream to upstream prevention efforts that engage businesses in responsible production to avoid creating excess food in the first place. He reported that Leanpath’s prevention efforts typically result in a 50 percent reduction in food waste and approximately 2–8 percent reductions in food costs, depending on the site. He added that a prevention-focused approach would benefit the environment and free up resources for redirecting food waste recovery to address the root causes of hunger and poverty. And he again stressed that the best way to achieve the goal of food waste prevention is through continued measurement that makes waste visible within organizations.
Norbert Wilson, Tufts University, spoke about mitigating food loss, primarily for produce, and about how food labels influence food waste. Loss occurs at several points along the supply chain, he observed, including at the consumer level, during transport, and on the farm.
Wilson began by highlighting the great variation among crops in the amount that is lost, including the marketable product left on the field and the amount that does not meet grade. He cited a study showing that this amount can range from as low as 5 percent to as high as 100 percent when a farmer chooses not to harvest (Baker et al., 2019).
Wilson used a visual representation of the U.S. food supply chain from a 2015 Institute of Medicine and National Research Council report to highlight points along the supply chain where loss and waste occur, as well as innovations to mitigate some of the loss. He began by discussing farm production.
Using strawberries as an example, Wilson explained that growers must consider plant maturity, product quality, price fluctuation, and labor availability in deciding when to harvest their crops or even if to harvest them at all. He pointed out the importance of ensuring that products are of high enough quality not to lose market opportunities. Strawberries are repeatedly harvested over a period of time, he observed, and their prices often fluctuate. He added that growers may use innovations that extend production in an attempt to avoid harvesting when prices are at their lowest; however, he pointed out, prices may fluctuate on a daily or weekly basis. He noted further that growers must meet quality standards established by the federal government, and many grocery manufacturers and large companies have their own higher standards (Hsu-Flanders et al., 2019).
Accordingly, Wilson continued, innovation has focused on creating new crop varieties that can better sustain pests and diseases and thrive with varying water levels. He explained that innovations in shipping also can help crops like strawberries last longer once picked, while innovations in production timing can help farmers time when to harvest and when to expect the highest prices. Alternatively, he said, a producer may choose to vary production timing over the course of the season (Hsu-Flanders et al., 2019).
Considering the role of charitable innovations, Wilson noted that the ancient tradition of gleaning is still practiced by 282 organizations, the largest of which recovered 28.5 million pounds of produce in 2018. He stated,
however, that there are often challenges in accessing farms for this purpose. Wilson described an innovation in the for-profit sphere that involves commercial peer-to-peer mutualization systems, organizations that aggregate and sell product that would not otherwise be sold or marketed in a manner similar to a community-supported agriculture program. He observed that research in this area has focused on whether these organizations are successfully distributing benefits within the system or profiting off of farmers’ errors (Gallagher et al., 2019).
With respect to logistics, Wilson explained that fruits and vegetables, in particular, can be lost as the result of failure in the cold chain, leading to lower quality, a shortened shelf life, and possibly food safety concerns. He cited a study finding that 12 percent of food is lost because of poor refrigeration (Gunders, 2012). Innovations targeting this problem, he said, include forced air tunnels and cold walls used to cool products; temperature monitors; and management strategies such as “first expired, first out.” Additional packaging innovations include the use of radio frequency monitoring and other sensors that evaluate temperature, pH, and gases within a product to detect cold chain failures.
Turning to marketing strategies for “ugly produce” developed by the retail food sector, Wilson noted that these strategies have not been as effective as expected (Choi and McFetridge, 2019). He also shared the example of a nonprofit grocery store in a low-income community in Boston that sells products that are about to expire or would otherwise be wasted (Gallagher et al., 2019).
Wilson suggested that the consumer should, in theory, be able to send information back to the farmer and influence future production. He acknowledged, however, that this flow of information does not always take place.
Wilson pointed out that on the consumer end of the supply chain, package size and date labels impact food waste. Therefore, he suggested, innovative ways to reduce package size could also reduce food waste.
Wilson referenced research showing that consumers are confused by date labels, and reported that legislation to standardize date labels to include a “use by” safety label and a “best if used by” quality label has been introduced at the state and federal levels (Wilson et al., 2017, 2018; McBreen, 2018). And, he added, the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association have encouraged their members to use this approach to simplify labels.
Wilson then described his research examining how consumers understand different date labels across various products. He and his colleagues found that consumers expected to waste 15 to 30 percent of a product when it had only a date (Wilson et al., 2018). However, the addition of the words “best by” or “use by” before the date on the label impacted food waste in either a positive or negative direction, depending on the product and the consumer. Wilson noted that different consumers responded differently to the “best by” or “use by” labels, depending on their loss aversion.
In summary, Wilson reiterated that food loss and waste occur throughout the supply chain, with the amount varying significantly by product. He stated that potential solutions include new market structures, charitable institutions, and new technologies, each of which has its own challenges and unintended consequences. At the consumer level, he said, date labels affect perceptions of food waste. He also stressed the importance of considering feedback loops and system dynamics, as innovations or changes in one part of the supply chain may affect other parts.
Bradley Rickard, Cornell University, expanded on the issue of date labeling, including the economic and nutritional implications of the $200 billion in food waste in the United States and the impact of potential changes.
Food Waste Research Topics
Rickard began by outlining four areas of economic work related to food waste: (1) measurement of the amount of food waste and definition of what is considered waste; (2) information and industry initiatives, such as the impact of behavioral nudges designed to help people reduce their food waste across food products and categories and messaging, such as date labels; (3) determination of the optimal level of food waste, given the costs involved in getting food waste close to zero; and (4) the impact of reduction
or changes in food waste on future prices, production, and nutrition, which is the topic of Rickard’s research.
Rickard shared a framework for how changes in food waste or loss could impact price, quantity, and available nutrients in the household. Based on cost, he reported, the majority of the $200 billion in global food waste comprises fruits, vegetables, dairy, and meat; broken down by calories, however, most food waste is in the form of fats and sugars. Rickard expressed concern that if food waste were to be reduced, people might consume more added fats and sugars, reducing the nutritional quality of their diets. Thus, he questioned whether efforts to reduce food waste could inadvertently increase consumption of unhealthy foods and promote adverse health outcomes.
Date Label Research
Rickard and colleagues conducted consumer research to determine how people respond to behavioral nudges and what the larger market effects would be of a change in food waste and consumption. They surveyed consumers to assess how different date labels, including date only, “use by” date, “best by” date, “sell by” date, and “best if used by” date would affect their likelihood of discarding 15 different products from nine food groups 1 day past the date. They also assessed the impact of a green circle smart label identifying the freshness of a product using a biosensor in combination with the “use by” and “best if used by” date labels. The nine food groups were cereal, meat, eggs, fruits and vegetables, dairy, beverages, other foods, alcohol, and food away from home. Rickard explained that consumer responses to the survey were then used to determine how behavioral changes would affect prices, quantities, and nutrients available in the household.
According to Rickard, the study found that with just the date on the label (the control), 27 percent of consumers said they would be likely to discard the product; with the “best by” date label, this percentage fell to 22 percent. With the green circle smart label plus the “best if used by” date, the percentage fell further to 18 percent. However, Rickard pointed out that the change in percentages varied significantly by product and by label (Wilson et al., 2017).
Rickard further argued that changes in food waste based on date label changes would impact the nutrient availability of foods in the household. As he explained, if less food were wasted, less new food would be purchased. The change in purchasing would impact some food types more than others, he added. He presented nutrition simulations when shifting to a “best by” label, highlighting that overall nutrient availability in the household would fall. More specifically, households would eat relatively
more cholesterol, protein, and calcium because meat and dairy products are some of the most likely to be wasted, and would eat relatively fewer carbohydrates and sugars; therefore, household availability of carbohydrates and sugar would increase. Results were similar for use of both the “best if used by” label and the color-coded biosensor. In response to a question from an audience member, Rickard responded that overall, the “best if used by” label plus biosensor led to a 10 percent reduction in food waste compared with the date label only.
In conclusion, Rickard stated that overall, date labels work, and consumers do respond to them. The labels with the greatest impact are “best by,” “sell by,” and a biosensor smart label. However, Rickard reiterated, the level of response varies by food item. Improving date label information would be expected to decrease food waste, impacting the relative availability of foods and nutrients in the household so that there would be less fat, cholesterol, and protein and more carbohydrates and sugar.
An audience member opened the discussion by stating that for low-income consumers, the value of a product is based on how long it can be saved in the household without being wasted. Rickard was asked whether he had conducted research on consumers’ decisions to purchase products based on their shelf life. He responded that he and Wilson had done some point-of-purchase research and that the findings generally align with those he had presented. Wilson added that he had done research comparing a shelf-stable product (spaghetti sauce) with a similarly priced fresh product (deli meat) and had not found consumers to be less likely to choose the deli meat because it would spoil faster. However, he noted that research has not sufficiently examined the response of low-income consumers specifically.
Another audience member asked Wilson about challenges in accessing labor for the harvesting of fruits and vegetables. Wilson acknowledged that a lack of available labor or the cost of labor at harvest time can be an issue, and when this is the case, farmers may leave the product on the field. He agreed that addressing labor issues is important to the food supply chain and to reducing food waste.
With regard to some of the solutions for reducing food insecurity and food waste that Wilson had described, Wendy Johnson, Nestlé, commented that initiatives to bring produce from more affluent to low-income areas have been disliked by the communities on the receiving end. Wilson acknowledged her concerns and noted that the project that he had described in his presentation was led by the community and did not involve a large retailer “dumping” its unwanted products in a low-income community. He
also noted that the store committed to hiring workers from the community. Johnson added that it is important for such initiatives to be purposeful and community-driven.