It’s an everyday dilemma in the supermarket world. How can we best control waste — particularly on the fresh perimeter — and how can we use inevitable food waste to better help our communities?

According to Business Insider, supermarkets are responsible for 10% of all US food waste, throwing away 43 billion pounds of food each year. And the Center for Biological Diversity — based in Tucson, Arizona — recently put the industry on full blast, grading the country’s top 10 largest retailers in their food waste reduction efforts.

The results weren’t pretty. Walmart earned a B while Ahold Delhaize, Kroger and Albertsons Companies each managed a C. Every company below that was given a D or an F.

“There is so much more awareness around food waste these days, both on a local scale and industry-wide,” says Jenny Mahoney, deli director for Woodbury, Minnesota-based Kowalski’s Markets. “It truly is all about the big picture. We have to try and think on a bigger scale about how we can reuse things and better run our operations and not add waste into the system.”

Fresh challenges

Ahold Delhaize — headquartered in the United States in Salisbury, North Carolina — says it has committed to reducing food waste in its operations by 20% between 2016 and 2020. One of the biggest challenges the company has encountered — and one that every retailers faces — is reducing waste while also making it easier for consumers to maintain healthy diets and eat fresh foods.

Fresh products, obviously, carry a shorter shelf life and can lead to more waste. Ahold Delhaize says it reduces waste by preventing it in the first place through inventory management and by sharing best practices to redistribute unsold food. The company also provides advice to help customers to prevent food waste at home.

Ahold brand Hannaford’s efforts to reduce food waste were highlighted in a major study commissioned by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC). Hannaford exemplifies our three-pronged approach – first preventing food waste in its stores, then donating all safe and unsold food through a partnership with Feeding America, and finally recycling the remaining food waste or turning it into energy. Their efforts enabled them to reduce food waste in their operations by 30%.

Giving back

There will always be more food than can be used, especially when you consider standard business practices.

“In an ideal state you have exactly the amount you need, but we’re trying to make money, too,” Mahoney says. “If you go too tight, you can’t grow your sales. It really comes down to being aware. It’s something we talk about all the time in department meetings: being mindful of everything that comes in the door.”

But even with superior ordering and preparation, you will likely always find yourself with more fresh product that can be sold in a single day.

Kowalski’s partners with local organizations and farmers to help turn their waste into a positive. Anything from the deli, prepared, bakery or produce department that isn’t sold at the end of the day, hasn’t expired, and can’t be held until the next business day, is given to Second Harvest Heartland. Second Harvest is a food bank based in the Twin Cities that operates multiple locations.

“All of our usable deli food and anything that has technically expired but is still good, it all goes to people in need in the Twin Cities,” Mahoney says. “Every single one of our locations puts its extra food to good use every single day.”

Any other fresh food items — anything considered shrink — goes to local farmers to feed young, growing pigs.

Curbing waste with ‘Best By’ dates

In a country that has an abundance of almost every food possible, waste remains a complex and troubling issue. Each year, the United States discards 133 billion pounds — or more than $161 billion worth — of food. That’s nearly one-third of the available food supply. One part of the problem involves label confusion, specifically about the date in which food should be used.

“The prevailing wisdom of ‘if in doubt, throw it out’ is resulting in tremendous food waste,” according to a recent report by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA).

Initially, the GMA and the Food Marketing Institute gathered leading food manufacturers and retailers to address the problem and recommended to narrow down or voluntary standardize date labeling to “Best If Used By” and “Use By.” Basically, “Best If Used By” indicates items may not taste or perform as expected but can still be consumed. “Use By” applies to perishable foods that should be consumed by the date on the package or then discarded.

Since the initiative began, 87% of products have adopted the streamlined phrases, according to a GMA December 2018 survey. The association projected a 98% adoption rate by the end of 2019, and it expected complete adoption by January 2020 in conjunction with the expected FDA Nutrition Facts label updates. The GMA noted that voluntarily standardizing the two date labels may not only reduce consumer confusion about when to toss out food, but also allow the food industry — not the government — to address this labeling.

The GMA called standardized terms a proactive common-sense solution.

“They had a quick effect and promise to have a lasting impact,” the report concluded. It’s a good first start to a big issue.

Extending meat shelf life to reduce waste

Fresh-cut and wrapped meat and poultry spoils quickly, especially if shelf-life extending technologies are not incorporated. That’s because meat and poultry are nutrient-dense substrates with high-water activity, making them a target for microbial growth. Spoiled product must be discarded because it is organoleptically unacceptable, making spoilage one of the greatest forms of food waste.

Processors have a toolbox of ingredients to assist with reducing waste while ensuring product safety. There are ingredients that retard oxidation, thereby improving color and flavor. There are also various approaches to slowing the growth of spoilage microorganisms while also destroying pathogens. Of course, starting with quality raw meat and poultry and maintaining clean and well refrigerated manufacturing, storage and distribution environments is paramount.

There are many technologies to assist with slowing color loss. This includes modified atmosphere packaging, reducing exposure to in-store lighting and addition of ingredients that stabilize desirable color. There are conventional generally recognized as safe (GRAS) additives and clean-label options.

Turning flawed produce into opportunity

Not meeting the cosmetic criteria — the faulty appearance of a fruit — is one of the major reasons why plenty of fruits are being discarded as waste, and this has opened the gateway for the growth of the products from food waste market. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that, on an average, supermarkets in the US lose nearly $15 billion annually due to cosmetic flaws in fruits and vegetables. This presents ample opportunities for the products from food waste market.

These fruits and vegetables are of excellent quality and at par with the nutritional profile of the ones that are sold in the market. Some small- and medium-sized manufacturers are initiating the processing of such products that do not meet the cosmetic criteria, fueling the growth of the products from food waste market. These products from food waste can easily benefit the health conscious consumers due to their rich nutritional profile. Moreover, consumers tend to pay less for products that are conventional, and a higher price is paid for products that have an added-value, such as organic, vegan, and also products from food waste. Hence, through products from food waste, even manufacturers earn more profits.