Food loss and waste occur throughout the whole food system and have wide-reaching impacts, which extend to the economy, the depletion of limited resources, and food security i.e. when all people at all times have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food. Food wastage should, therefore, be prevented to protect both our environment and social needs.
This information statement outlines the leading causes of food wastage across the food system, its impacts, how it is measured and strategies to reduce it.
The definition of ‘food waste’ differs between organisations and between individual country jurisdictions. This makes it challenging to align approaches to reduce both food loss and food waste and when communicating to different audiences. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) differentiates between food waste and food loss in this way:
“The decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by food suppliers in the chain, excluding retailers, food service providers and consumers.”
“The decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by retailers, food service providers and consumers.”
The distinction is important to bear in mind when interpreting or comparing statistics produced by different bodies. Food loss can also apply to material removed from the food chain by non-human actions, such as pest attack or weather. The term ‘food waste’, along with any description which actually or implicitly capitalises the W of waste, runs the risk of invoking legal descriptions and associated limitations. Wasted food and food wastage both get around this problem with terminology and should be used where general colloquial definitions are desired. The choice between the two is largely semantic depending on how the term sits within a sentence. The two UN FAO definitions above are reflected in the proposed indicators to measure global food loss and waste, in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goal 12.3.
The UK definition of ‘food waste’, given by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), is any food and inedible parts sent to a specified list of food waste destinations, where “food” is defined as any substance that was at some point intended for human consumption. It is important to realise that this refers to all stages along a value chain, so, for example, wheat and flour would be included, even if consumers would only encounter them in finished food products such as bread. UK specific ‘food waste’ figures quoted in this report will be in line with this definition and be consistent with the Food Loss and Waste Accounting and Reporting Standard, which extends beyond the UK.
More broadly, the term ‘food wastage’ encompasses both the UN FAO definitions of food loss and food waste and will be used throughout this report.
An underpinning feature of any food wastage reduction strategy is to have quantitative data as to how much food wastage is occurring, and specifically where it is occurring so that solutions can be effectively targeted. Measurement of food loss and waste has revealed stark differences in the causes of food wastage between different countries - depending on the individual country’s infrastructure, economy and climate. A further key difference is that developing countries’ food wastage is primarily due to food loss, whereas in developed countries it is largely due to food waste (FAO, 2013). For example, a 2016 study in the EU found that 53% of food waste arises from households (EU FUSIONS, 2016). These differences call for tailored strategies unique to each country. In the UK, efforts aimed at altering consumer behaviour will be amongst the most effective to reduce food waste.
Food loss and waste are measured at a global scale right down to individual businesses. Global food loss and food waste are being tracked by two indicators, the Food Loss Index (FLI) and the Food Waste Index (FWI), in line with the definitions given by the FAO. Globally, the most recent estimate from FAO was 14% of food is lost pre-retail. Food waste estimates are expected imminently from the United Nations Environment Programme. WRAP reports UK food waste statistics in line with their definitions for food waste: in 2018, there was 9.5 million tonnes of food waste estimated in the UK, equating to a loss of £19 billion and 25 million tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (WRAP, 2020). Methodology for food waste accounting has been developed by several different bodies.
Best practice and guidance for measuring food wastage are given in the Food Loss and Waste Accounting and Reporting Standard (FLWARS) and can be applied at a range of scales, from an individual company to an entire country. UK specific guidance has been created by WRAP and is tailored to different actors along the food supply chain. In addition, Defra’s Waste and Resources Strategy document (Dec 2018) has raised the prospect of mandatory reporting of food waste.
For progress to be made there needs to be transparency of food waste measurement from businesses. WRAP reports that more companies are reporting their food waste, however, many are only doing so privately, and a significant number are reluctant to divulge their internal company information.
The reluctance stems from fears that data sharing may compromise a company’s competitive edge or create a negative reputation (Mena, 2011). However, as ‘food waste’ becomes an increasingly important issue to consumers, failing to be transparent about the amount of food waste generated may in itself become detrimental to company reputation. Transparency and information sharing would aid more efficient collaboration between different stages in the food supply chain, particularly in supporting more accurate demand forecasting (Mena, 2011).
Food security - the physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food - is crucial for our global population. In particular, the growing global human population will require significant increased food production with no additional planetary resources available to produce it. Preventing food loss and food waste are critically important to overcoming this future challenge. Food security is a serious issue, particularly in developing countries, with 820 million people in the world who are hungry (FAO, 2019). It is estimated that food production needs to double by 2050 (from the amount in 2007) to feed the growing population, with no additional planetary resources available to produce it. Agricultural land and water are already limited, so reducing food wastage is essential to meeting the demands of the future population size.
The environmental impact of food loss and waste is centred around water use, land use and greenhouse gas emissions (Chapagain, et al., 2011; FAO, 2013).. Primary production is a water-intensive process and agriculture production was reported to make up 92% of the global water footprint (Hoekstra, et al., 2012). The water footprint of a given food item is a combination of the water needed to produce the ingredients, to process them (e.g. washing, cleaning, moving, diluting and using water as an ingredient), to manufacture the food product, to produce the packaging, to distribute product, in the food products use stage by the consumer and in the management of its end of life (Manzardo, et al., 2016). When food is wasted, so is the water from its overall water footprint.
Food production, manufacture, distribution and retail all result in the emission of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Globally, the wastage of food is responsible for 3.5 Gt CO2e of GHG emissions.. GHG emissions also arise from food that ends up in landfill. As that buried food decays, it releases methane into the atmosphere. Methane is 25 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2019). GHGs cause climate change, which will have global negative impacts including: water scarcity, reduced biodiversity, extreme weather events, reduced crop yields and other threats to food security (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2014) (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2019).
Food wastage is also associated with a substantial economic footprint (FAO, 2014). Food wastage incurs costs directly from the wasted resources that went into producing it. Additionally, there are indirect costs that arise from the environmental and social impacts, which are estimated to cost USD 700 billion and USD 900 billion, respectively (FAO, 2014).
Food waste has therefore been recognised as a global issue and is included in the UN sustainable development goals (UN SDG). UN SDG target 12.3 states that: "By 2030, halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses." (United Nations, 2016). In the UK the importance of working towards “cut[ting] the amount of resource needed to provide our food and drink by one-fifth in 10 years” has been recognised by the many organisations signing up to the Courtauld Commitment 2025. A sub-target of this Commitment is a 20% reduction in food and drink waste arising in the UK per head of population.
Although a signatory of Courtauld 2025, the UK government currently has no regulations in place specifically requiring food waste reduction. However, food and drink are included in the waste hierarchy outlined in The Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2011, the Waste Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2011 and the Waste (Scotland) Regulations 2012.
The UK government has also published food and drink waste hierarchy statutory guidance which advises industries on how to prevent waste and deal with any arising waste sustainably (Defra, 2018). Currently, successful implementation of this is reliant on voluntary commitments, but the government may introduce legislation for mandatory food waste measurement and targets if progress is inadequate (HM Government, 2018).
Extensive tools and resources on how and why to reduce food waste are available from the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) which is managing the Courtauld Commitment 2025 systems tracking improvements being delivered by food and drink businesses.
When is waste, waste?
A key part of regulation is defining when food becomes ‘food waste’. This is pertinent when attempting to redistribute or recycle food, where the regulatory status of material can be a major hurdle. The Waste Framework Directive 2008/98/EC established by the European Commission defines waste as:
'any substance or object which the holder discards or intends or is required to discard'.
This definition can render a substance either as waste or a resource, depending on the context. For example, used coffee grounds would be considered waste for a café but a resource for a coffee recycling company. Companies will need to take care of how they define their material when utilising by-products either from their own system or another entity’s, to ensure regulatory compliance and permit use/re-use by other operations.
Food loss and waste occur throughout the whole food supply chain, from farm to fork. As discussed, the contribution from each point in the food system differs between countries depending on their climate, infrastructure and economy. Developed and developing countries have a very different profile of food wastage sources along the supply chain. Appropriate solutions for each source of food wastage will be unique to the specific type of food operation and its place in the food system.
The agriculture, horticulture and aquaculture sectors can experience food loss before, during and after harvest or through not harvesting at all. This can be driven by numerous factors including environmental conditions, pests, disease, harvesting technique, cancelled orders, changes in market demands or poor storage and transport (FAO, 2019). Reducing food loss is often not seen as financially beneficial to producers in developed countries. Rather, producing an excess and only harvesting what is required can be considered preferable to not being able to meet customer demand. The impact of retailer’s demand planning to ensure their in-store availability can therefore result in significant food wastage at food producers This may in some circumstances making it less viable for food producers to invest in more efficient processes. Another source of food loss can be quality standards for fruit and vegetables set by manufacturers and retailers resulting in safe, edible food being discarded when they do not meet specified aesthetics.
There are several science and technology solutions proposed to reduce food loss during primary production:
- The development of more robust crops through traditional or genetic modification breeding techniques can reduce pre-harvest loss (Voss-Fels, 2019) .
- High-throughput phenotyping can accelerate breeding and facilitate precision farming (Chawade, 2019).
- Improved harvesting methods, storage and transport.
Other suggested methods to reduce food loss during production include:
- Collaboration with other farmers to avoid over production whilst meeting demand.
- Seeking out buyers for perceived “lower quality” food.
- Fairer and more secure contracts between buyers and producers.
- Relevant and timely market intelligence for producers to know when to harvest/release from stores and where to ship to reach optimal markets for sale.
- Routes for alternative food uses of food crops.
Food loss can occur during manufacturing through poor scheduling of production, late cancellation of orders, inefficient or excessive processing, mishandling and a failure to utilise by-products. Processing food can give rise to food loss when edible food is trimmed or peeled off. However, by-products from processing can still have nutritional value or be valorised by conversion into other high-value edible foodstuff products. Optimising or adding processes to utilize by-products can reduce food loss although it not always seen as financially beneficial to do so. However, WRAP has estimated that businesses can potentially achieve a 14-fold return on their investments to reduce food waste (WRAP, 2017). There are many case studies showcasing successful improvements that have either reduced waste or found a use for by-products.
Packaging has an important role in reducing food waste, but there is currently some confusion surrounding the sustainability impact of the various formats of packaging and types of packaging materials. Consumer dislike of plastic following media reports on global plastic pollution has resulted in many retailers and manufacturers looking for alternatives. The challenge is that seemingly more sustainable alternatives can have a larger carbon footprint and inferior food preservation properties (Guillard, et al., 2018). To reduce food waste, food packaging needs to be designed with its fundamental purpose in mind: to preserve and protect food. Innovative packaging and preservation techniques can contribute to reducing food waste by increasing shelf-life (Guillard, et al., 2018). Sustainable solutions can be achieved by considering the overall impact including packaging raw materials type and sourcing, processing into final packaging formats and end of life options including options for consumers to easily recycle it. The ‘sustainable’ status of the packaging raw materials themselves is strongly reliant on the capabilities of the collection and re-processing infrastructure which surrounds them.
Food is wasted during retail in the UK primarily through stock management failures and difficulties in demand forecasting. Retailers are very efficient and contribute the least to post-farm gate food waste in the UK (WRAP, 2020). However, retailers tend to over-stock products rather than risk a shortage for their customers, which can lead to food waste in-store, across distribution and back at food producer level (Mena, 2011). New developments in consumer demand forecasting techniques can support the purchase of the correct number of products leading to less wastage (Felix, 2018; Blue Yonder, 2017). Once in-store, the ability to sell products before they expire is a major factor in food waste. Here, online retailers report lower levels of food waste due to their ability to keep food in superior storage conditions (Farrell, 2018). A solution to ensure timely sales is dynamic discount pricing for products close to their expiration date, which has been shown to increase sales, reduce wastage and maximize profits (Felix, 2018; Wasteless, 2019)
Data collected prior to 2020 has identified 71% of UK edible food waste (post-farmgate) coming from households. In-home food wastage during the Covid19 lockdown appears to have dropped and consumer behaviour changes might outlast the current pandemic (WRAP, 2020a). However, there is still an opportunity for retailers to leverage their power and resources to help empower and facilitate consumer food waste reduction (WRAP, 2020). Several options have been proposed (WRAP, 2019; Verghese, et al., 2013):
- Clearer expiration dates.
- No use of best-before or sell-by dates.
- Re-sealable/re-closable packaging.
- Sub-divided packs.
- Smaller portions available at a reasonable price.
- Information on how to store at home.
- Advice on freezing and defrosting.
- Recipe advice.
- No multi-buy promotions.
- Promotion of ‘wonky veg or other ‘imperfect’ products.
More advice is available on the WRAP website.
Hospitality and Food Service
Hospitality and food service (HaFS) businesses such as restaurants, caterers and bars waste a lot of food during food preparation and through the disposal of unfinished meals. Like retailers, the HaFS sector can reduce food waste arising from its own operations as well as helping to influence consumer-driven waste. Identifying causes of food waste should be done by measuring and documenting food waste according to best practice.
HaFS can ensure food is eaten by incorporating unused ingredients into other recipes, providing flexible portion sizes, flexible meal serving content and offering the ability to take uneaten food away. To this end, WRAP has developed material specifically for the HaFS.
In the UK, the majority of food waste occurs in the home and therefore consumers are a vital part of reducing food waste (WRAP, 2020). Consumers throw away food due to poor planning, buying more than they need, and leaving meals unfinished, as well as lack of understanding of the meaning of durability dates such as ‘Use-by’ and ‘Best-before’ and subsequent concerns over food safety.
Many of the proposed solutions for reducing consumer food waste are focused on promoting behavioural changes by raising awareness and making it easier for consumers to avoid wasting food (see Retail and HaFS sections). WRAP have several public-facing campaigns to this end, including the Love Food, Hate Waste website.
Key decision moments that consumers experience have been identified as: ‘(1) acquiring food by purchasing and planning for meals, (2) storing food, (3) assessing the edibility of food, (4) valuing food and (5) eating food by creating use-occasions and portioning’ (Hebrok, et al., 2019). Targeting these key consumer decision moments could be most effective when promoting and facilitating behavioural changes for food waste reduction.
Consumers interested in reducing the amount of food they waste can find helpful advice in the IFST Food Waste fact sheet and on the Love food, hate waste website.
Food loss and food waste can be reduced but interventions can have unintended consequences. Implemented changes can have negative impacts on other stages in the food chain, other sectors or even the environment and economy. Each point in the supply chain needs to consider how it affects other sectors and the overall food system. Retail particularly influences food producers, processors and consumers. Examples of possible unintended consequences are:
- The increased use of refrigeration or use of cold chain to extend shelf-life of foods and/or provide greater numbers of chilled and/or frozen food products will have an associated energy cost.
- The use of food by-products as animal feed needs careful management and control to avoid risks to animal and human health e.g. classical swine fever, avian influenza, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or contamination with chemicals (dioxins).
- The rise in re-distributed food can generate traceability and food safety issues. Cross-contamination can occur during combined transport of food items in their primary packaging, which are more prone to damage without protection from secondary packaging. There is also an increased risk of time-temperature abuse (Ananprakrit , et al., 2017).
- Reductions in food waste at one point in the supply chain can affect prices elsewhere which has the potential to threaten smaller business or make food unaffordable for less affluent consumers (FAO, 2019).
Any changes or strategies to reduce food wastage will require careful planning and consideration to anticipate and mitigate any unintended consequences.
- Food loss and food waste is a serious issue for the environment, the economy and society.
- There are numerous initiatives and targets set globally and nationally.
- The food sector should treat reducing food loss and food waste as a priority.
- Food wastage is pervasive throughout the food system and is a problem which everyone should be addressing.
- ‘Food waste’ is on the rise as a critical issue in the public eye and in the eyes of policy makers and regulators.
- Individual stakeholders should seek out information and guidance specific for their sector. (See trusted resources).
- The first step in food waste reduction is measuring it to identify maximum opportunities to make a positive impact.
- The solutions to reducing food wastage are a combined effort of policy, social change, technology and industry collaboration.
FLI – Food Loss Index
FLWARS – Food Loss and Waste Accounting and Reporting Standard
FWI – Food Waste Index
GHG – Greenhouse Gas
HaFS – Hospitality and Food Service
UK – United Kingdom
UN FAO - The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization
WRAP – the Waste and Resources Action Programme
By-product (WRAP): ‘an output from a production process that is not the main intended product but which has a value as an input to other food, feed or non-food markets. To qualify as a by-product the material must meet certain criteria (e.g., have value and be certain to find a market).’
Food (WRAP): any substance that was, at some point, intended for human consumption.
Food loss (FAO): “the decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by food suppliers in the chain, excluding retailers, food service providers and consumers.”
Food wastage: any reduction in the quantity or quality of food throughout the food system (a colloquial term not formally endorsed by regulators or an authoritative body).
Food waste (FAO): “the decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by retailers, food service providers and consumers.”
Food waste (WRAP): ‘Food Waste’ describes any food and inedible parts sent to any of the Food Waste Destinations listed [here]. This definition excludes any material that is sent for redistribution to people, animal feed or, conversion into industrial products (collectively referred to as ‘food surplus’).
Genetic modification (FSA): ‘the process of altering the genes of a living thing. Genes carry the instructions for all the characteristics that a living thing inherits. Genetic modification allows us to produce plants, animals and micro-organisms with specific qualities.’
Greenhouse gas (EPA): ‘gases that trap heat in the atmosphere’
Land-use (Food Source): ‘the purpose for which an area of land is used by humans: e.g. cropland, urban settlements, managed forests. Wild land, by contrast, is that not used by humans.’
Waste: a material intended for disposal.
Water footprint (Water Footprint Network): ‘a measure of humanity’s appropriation of fresh water in volumes of water consumed and/or polluted.’
Food security (FAO): ‘food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.’
Koolmill A lower energy, increased efficiency mill for rice.
MiAlgae By-product utilisation.
Hermetic storage solutions improved storage to reduce post-harvest food losses by up to 98%.
little & fresh Range of smaller vegetables.
bio-bean Coffee ground recycling.
Wasteless Dynamic discount pricing to reduce in-store food waste.
WRAP Food waste prevention
WRAP Report: The Business Case for Reducing Food Loss and Waste Share 16th March 2017
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Institute of Food Science & Technology has authorised the publication of the following updated Information Statement on Food waste, dated August 2020.
This updated Information Statement has been prepared by Liat Adler, student member and intern at IFST, supported by and peer-reviewed by professional members of the IFST Sustainability Steering Group chaired by Gavin Milligan FIFST, and approved by the IFST Scientific Committee.
The Institute takes every possible care in compiling, preparing and issuing the information contained in IFST Information Statements, but can accept no liability whatsoever in connection with them. Nothing in them should be construed as absolving anyone from complying with legal requirements. They are provided for general information and guidance and to express expert professional interpretation and opinion, on important food-related issues.