The UN Environment Programme's Food Waste Index found that more than 900 million tons of food are thrown away every year, with household food waste accounting for 60% of that total. Responsible for 24% of greenhouse gas emissions, the global food system is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, which makes the amount of food wasted an even more difficult figure to digest.
This pressing problem hasn't gone unrecognized, with multi-agency efforts to drastically reduce food waste springing up across the globe, many of which center around best-before and use-by dates, with progressive businesses taking the lead to try and find a solution to a problem that definitely isn't going away.
Making sense of date labels
One of the key areas to be addressed is consumer confusion over dates on products. UK waste reduction charity, WRAP, found that around 60% of UK household food waste, with a value of £6.7 billion, was from products that weren't used "in time." Worse still, it found that as much as 30% of the food that was "binned" for being past its date probably didn't need to be thrown away, instead bearing a "best-before," as opposed to a "use-by" date. Clearly, there is confusion over date labelling.
This isn't just in the UK either. In the U.S., 30-40% of all American food goes to waste each year, a figure that can be partially blamed on the multitude of labelling conventions at play in the U.S., including "expiration," "use-by," "best-by", "sell by," "best-if-used by," ad infinitum. And, the European Commission estimates that up to 10% of the 88 million tons of food waste generated each year across the EU is linked to date marking.
Consumer education obviously has a role to play in reducing food waste. Building awareness about how best-before dates are not the same as use-by dates, and implementing consistent labelling standards where possible are key. So is providing more information on fridge temperatures, for example, particularly when you consider that even just a 1°C increase in fridge temperature can shave a whole day off the life of some products. But, as we're already seeing, the industry can take other proactive steps, too, paving the way for a distinct decrease in food waste.
Smart shelves and dynamic dates
For instance, some supermarkets are experimenting with smart shelves, which reduce the price of items, in line with decreasing use-by and best-before dates. This technology has the potential to make it all the way into the home, with smart fridges able to alert consumers to impending use-by dates. In a similar vein, the introduction of a dynamic shelf life for products, where a shelf life is adjusted according to the actual quality of the product, is a very attractive proposition for manufacturers, retailers and consumers alike.
And, it's where food manufacturers, who sit at the very heart of the food industry, can take the lead, making the most of the information and technology available to them. They can blaze a trail, when it comes to optimizing the shelf lives of products to make a significant difference to the staggering amount of food that's wasted on a daily basis.
There are countless variables that go into determining the shelf life of a product, including what it's made of, how and when it's made, how it will be treated on its journey to the consumer, and, ultimately, how it will be treated once it arrives with the consumer.
By assessing all the available information, it's down to manufacturers to determine use-by or best-before dates, which, to mitigate against potential health and safety risks, always tend to be on the conservative side. This erring on the side of caution, while understandable, clearly has the potential to contribute to the seemingly ever-increasing amounts of food wasted by consumers, an issue that the right technology can help to address.
When it comes to shelf life, one size really does not fit all, particularly with perishable products, and can also vary dramatically from batch to batch. The application of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) capabilities can help manufacturers to take into account all the different variables at all stages of the farm-to-fork supply chain to formulate a dynamic shelf life for each product.
In practice, this involves the condition monitoring of ingredients and finished products, both upstream and downstream, looking at storage and transportation times and conditions pre-, during and post-production, as well as raw ingredient quality profiling and examining what will happen to the product once it reaches the retailer.
Internet of Things (IoT) devices are perfect for this approach, able to measure the vital variables and feed this crucial information back into intelligent systems for analysis to determine optimum use-by or best-before dates, which are aligned to the specific quality attributes of an individual batch of products.
This granularity and visibility of information right across the supply chain brings with it additional benefits for manufacturers, too. The right systems can deliver the depths of foresight needed to better inform planning and sourcing decisions.
For example, insight into what ingredients are to be expected can enable manufacturers to dynamically change the recipe to compensate for any shortcomings in ingredient quality or characteristics. Similarly, it enables manufacturers to investigate alternative sources of ingredients if a particular supplier is found lacking, or move to a different method of transportation if current services are contributing to a reduced shelf life.
Additionally, employing such tactics can have cost benefits, too. For instance, although higher quality ingredients generally offer a longer shelf life, one must question the value in paying extra for an ingredient because it's stable for longer if the end product itself will only have a limited shelf life - particularly in this era of trying to minimize stock holding wherever possible. Ultimately, this whole approach can optimize manufacturing operations, while contributing to wider efforts to reduce food waste significantly.
The right technology holds the key to placing food manufacturers at the heart of any efforts to reduce food waste. Forward-thinking businesses are already recognizing this, making use of the information and tools available to them, along the entire breadth of the wider supply chain, to gain the insight needed to inform best practices for dynamic dating of food products.
This approach paves the way for less food to be wasted across the globe, representing a concerted effort on behalf of the food industry to find a solution to one of the most pressing challenges facing us all today.