The 6 Stages of Food Loss and Waste

Food Loss in Harvesting

It is quite a well-known fact within global food loss and waste statistics, that up to 45% of the world’s fresh produce goes to waste each year. You read that correctly, we waste almost as many fruit and vegetable products as we eat!

This food waste occurs across various stages of the food supply chain, including the initial agricultural production, throughout processing, and then eventually the retail and consumption level. That’s right! from farm to fork, food loss occurs at every stage in the supply chain and often it’s preventable.

Throughout production and supply chains, food loss and waste is a problem that has become so widespread and common that we don’t even notice them anymore.

According to the United Nations, there are currently around 7.6 billion people on the planet, and the number is set to reach around 10 billion by the year 2050. We simply cannot afford to be losing such large quantities of the world’s food supply each year, which also contributes to the waste of natural resources and climate change via greenhouse gas emissions.

With the growing demand for food security alongside the global population increase, we should be doing everything we can to reduce food loss.

At PostHarvest, we believe that awareness is one of the most important factors for a significant food waste reduction to take place, and we’re here to not only educate but highlight some of the various stages along the food supply chain in which food loss and waste occur.

This blog post will explore six different stages of food loss and waste throughout the food supply chain and how you can help reduce your carbon footprint by reducing food waste!

Food Loss and Waste Stages

Food supply chains are complex, with many stages where food loss and waste can occur. With so many areas in which food can be either lost or wasted, there is a lot of room for us to improve food security just by being more diligent and purposeful with what supplies we do have.

The six main stages that cover all kinds of food loss and waste across the entire production and supply chain of global food systems are:

Harvesting, Handling & Storage, Processing, Transport & Distribution, Retail & Hospitality, and Households.

Harvesting

As the name would suggest, post-harvest losses can occur immediately after harvest has occurred. This surprises some, as reducing food loss seems like an issue that would arise further down the food value chain.

Food is lost on farms for a variety of reasons. To hedge their bets against pests and weather, farmers often plant more crops than consumer demand dictates during food production. Food produced, then may not be harvested due to damage by weather, pests, and disease. 

Market conditions off the farm can also lead to farmers having to throw out edible food. If the food prices on the market are lower than the cost of transportation and labour, sometimes farmers will leave their crops un-harvested, leading to excess food. 

This practice, called dumping, happens when farmers are producing more of a product than people are willing to buy, or when demand for a product falls unexpectedly, leading to an increase in food wastage. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, farmers lost a major portion of their business due to restaurant and other foodservice closures all over the world.

This led farmers to the painful decision to plow over edible crops and dump fields of perfectly edible product every day, rather than go through the additional cost of harvesting and processing products they could not sell.

Having fields of food wasted before it even had a chance to go to market is especially concerning when all of this food is lost amidst global food security concerns.

While some governments have programs to buy excess produce and donate it to food banks and emergency relief organisations, the highly specialised processing and transportation networks for many products make donation difficult and expensive.

Cosmetic imperfections (leading to so-called “ugly produce”) are another significant source of postharvest losses on farms, as consumers are less interested in misshaped or blemished items. The discarding of ugly fruits and vegetables is being combatted by companies such as Good & Fugly, which are on a mission to reduce food waste by helping deliver discounted fruit and vegetable items that are fit for human consumption to customers who are not caught up in the cosmetic appearance of their products.

And finally, in recent years, farmers have been forced to leave food produced in the fields due to labour shortages caused by factors such as changing immigration laws, and generational shifts in workforce priorities.

Handling & Storage

Once fruit and vegetable products have been harvested, there is a process of washing, cooling, preparing, and storing these products. Throughout this stage, there are a number of factors that can lead to food losses.

If product is not washed or cooled properly before it’s prepared, food quality may decrease the more preparation that takes place thereafter. This can lead to products maturing before their projected time, which can lead to a spike in ethylene release, resulting in surrounding products maturing ahead of time.

Food storage is the longest stage of the post-harvest lifecycle. In particular cases, certain fruit and vegetable products can remain in a storehouse for up to 18 to 24 months!

If storing conditions are not optimal, this can result in large amounts of products maturing ahead of distribution. Optimal factors include the level of humidity, temperature, ethylene, oxygen, and so on. Sensors such as the PostHarvest sensor can measure progress, track and report on all of these factors.

Having real-time knowledge of the health rates of fresh products can help reduce food losses along the storage period.

Processing

While a lot of ugly produce items either need to be rescued or disposed of by food suppliers, some product that does not meet strict retailer or consumer cosmetic standards goes to suppliers for a second life through processing, but even if they are willing to accept the product, the supplier must be close enough to justify transportation costs and able to accept large volumes of product.

These cost barriers make it particularly challenging for small and midsize farmers who are trying to play their part in reducing food loss, as getting these secondary items to processors can significantly reduce early-stage food losses.

For all the food items that do manage to get over this financial hurdle, from that point, most food losses at processing facilities are generated while converting produce items into packaged products, trimming off edible portions, such as skin and peels from particular fresh produce items, along with potential product damage that can occur with employee handling and processing technology.

Transportation & Distribution

Once the product has been inspected, washed, packaged, and stored, it begins the travel portion of its journey. Transportation and distribution is a key stage in the food chain, as it is during this process that fresh products begin their voyage to retailers and other consumer-facing outlets for human consumption.

Certain fresh products can be sent all across the world, depending on the demand of the product as well as the season for it. Transporting perishables on both a local and global scale can leave shipments at risk of becoming lost or wasted supplies.

During food transportation and distribution, perishable foods are vulnerable to food loss and waste, especially in developing countries where access to adequate and reliable refrigeration, infrastructure, and transportation can be a challenge. While this is not a significant source of food waste in more developed countries; food loss and waste occur when product spoils from improper refrigeration and stacking. Smaller losses here can lead to additional losses later on due to spoilage, food contamination, and food safety issues.

Most fruit and vegetable products need to go to retailers and consumers within 48 hours to be sold within their peak conditions and freshness, otherwise, they won’t be bought and will be thrown away as a result. This means that any unforeseen disturbances or major delays during transport can result in an entire shipment of food waste.

The rejection of perishable food shipments, which are thrown out if another buyer can’t be found quickly, is a large problem at this stage of food systems. It is estimated that between two and five percent of food shipments are rejected by food buyers. Even if these goods make it to market, they are often deemed as lost food because of their shorter shelf lives. Often, rejected food shipments are donated to food rescue organisations, but the quantities are too large to accept.

Retail & Hospitality

Once fresh produce hits the consumption stages of the supply chain journey, it generally has about 5-6 days to be sold before its discarded as food waste. Statistically, around 10% of all produce losses happen at retailers, mostly due to consumers not viewing the product as fit to buy. We as consumers prefer full and healthy-looking produce, and even the smallest defect can lead us to not buy it at all.

In the US alone, the USDA estimates that supermarkets lose $15 billion annually in just unsold fruit and vegetables. Unfortunately, food loss and waste practices in the retail industry are often viewed as good business strategies. Some of the main drivers for food loss and waste at retail stores include overstocked product displays, the expectation of cosmetic perfection of fruits, vegetables, oversized packages, the availability of prepared food until closing, expired “sell by” or “best before” dates, damaged goods, outdated seasonal items, over purchasing of unpopular foods and understaffing.

Currently, only 10 percent of edible wasted food is recovered each year, the barriers to recovering food are liability concerns, distribution and storehouse logistics, and funds needed for gleaning, collecting, packaging and distribution.

Collectively, restaurants and other institutions generate billions of pounds of food waste each year. Approximately 4 to 10 percent of food purchased by restaurants is wasted before reaching the consumer.

The main drivers of food loss and waste at restaurants include oversized portions, inflexibility of chain store management, and extensive menu choices. On average, diners leave 17 percent of their meals uneaten and 55 percent of edible leftover food is left at the restaurant. This is partly due to the fact that portion sizes have increased significantly over the past 30 years, often being two to eight times larger than standard servings.

Kitchen culture and staff behaviour such as over-preparation of food, improper ingredient storage, and failure to use food scraps and trimmings can also contribute to food loss. All-you-can-eat buffets are particularly big on wasting food since extra food cannot legally be reused or donated due to health code restrictions. The common practice of keeping buffets fully stocked during business hours (rather than allowing items to run out near closing) creates even more food waste.

Households

The final stage for food loss and waste is in the home of the consumer. We often forget to examine this area of the food supply journey as we naturally assume the journey is complete, however, a significant amount of food waste actually happens inside of our homes. In fact, households are responsible for the largest portion of all food waste, with approximately 40 to 50 percent of total food waste. 

In terms of total mass, fresh fruits and vegetables account for the largest losses at the consumer level. Major contributors to household food waste include:

Food Spoilage

About two-thirds of food waste at home is due to food not being used before it goes bad. Food spoilage at home occurs due to improper storing practices, lack of visibility in refrigerators, partially used ingredients, and misjudged food needs.

Over-Preparing

The remaining third of waste on consumer levels is the result of people cooking or serving too much food. Cooking portions have increased over time, and large meals often include more food than we can finish. In addition, people often forget to eat leftovers and end up throwing them away.

Date Label Confusion

An estimated 80 percent of consumers prematurely discard food due to confusion over the meaning of date labels (e.g., “sell by,” “best before,” “expires by,” and so forth). In reality, “sell by” and “use by” dates are not federally regulated and only serve as manufacturer suggestions for peak quality. Research on date labelling suggests that standardising food date labelling and clarifying its meaning to the public could reduce waste on consumer levels by as much as 20 percent.

Overbuying

Sales on unusual products and promotions that encourage impulse and bulk food purchases at retail stores often lead consumers to purchase items that do not fit into their regular meal plans and, therefore, spoil before they can be used.

Poor Planning

Without meal plans and shopping lists, consumers often make inaccurate estimates of what and how many ingredients they will use during the week. Unplanned restaurant meals or food delivery can also lead to food at home going bad before it can be used.

Summary

Now that we know about these six main stages of food loss and waste, what can do we to reduce food loss and waste? The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has identified four key actions for reducing food loss throughout the supply chain:

– Improve harvesting techniques;

– Enhance storage technologies;

– Innovate processing methods; and lastly,

– Promote sound post-harvest management practices.

While no one has been spared by this global problem, there are many solutions out there to reduce food loss! If you want to learn more about how you can partake in waste reduction with our free online courses, click here. We hope this article has inspired you today- don’t let food go to waste any longer!

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