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Reducing Food Waste


Kenneth S. Marsh

Global food production is sufficient to offer 2800 calories per day to every man, woman and child.  However, over 860 million people remain chronically hungry.  Part of the difficulty is uneven production and distribution; part is food loss and waste.  The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimated that 1/3 of total world food production (1.3 billion tons) is lost or wasted annually.  Food loss occurs when food is lost between farm and retail.  Food waste is the discard of edible food.

Food loss can be reduced through better handling, improved storage and transportation and better infrastructure.   Packaging can specifically reduce food losses by limiting moisture exchange, facilitating handling, reducing contamination and reducing access of food to insects or animals.  Processing and packaging can further extend shelf life, offer food harvest-to-harvest and beyond and convert perishable food products into a more resilient form.

Significant reduction of food waste will require a better understanding of the extent of food waste and increased knowledge to differentiate between safe and questionable food products.

Food Loss and Waste

Per capita food loss/waste versus production is relatively consistent worldwide.  FAO findings identified per capita food production as presented in the following Table 1.


Table 1. Per capita food production, loss and waste (kg/year)



Developed countries

Developing countries

Food production



Total loss/waste

280 – 300

120 – 170

Food waste

95 – 115

6 – 11


Loss primarily end

of distribution and

consumer waste

Loss primarily during

storage, transport and



The environmental impact of 1.3 billion tons of food wastage is enormous: 3.3 billion tons of Greenhouse Gases (GHG) as CO2 equivalent, 250 km3 of blue water, land-use loss of almost 1.4 billion hectares, and significant biodiversity loss.  Putting this into perspective, GHG generation makes food loss the 3rd top GHG emitter after USA and China; blue water footprint is equivalent to the annual discharge of the Volga River or three times the volume of Lake Geneva; land-use loss is 30% of world’s agricultural land.  The world community cannot tolerate this level of food loss without dire consequences.

Food waste occurs at retail, hospitality and consumer levels and is accentuated by common practices that we should modify.  Supermarkets are essentially required to display a variety of “perfect” foods at all times.  If a consumer comes in minutes before closing, he/she expects to see all varieties of bakery goods, breads, produce, etc. Bakery items must be fresh, and most that remain at the end of the day are discarded.  Some food is offered to food pantries and other outlets but this involves storage and transportation costs, so disposal is typical. 

Expectations of “perfect” produce leads to food waste at both farm and retail levels.  Produce that is undersized, other than perfect shape or color or exhibits blemishes often never leaves the farm.  Since consumers don’t buy produce that is less than perfect in shape, size or color, supermarkets may reject such produce or discard it at the store.

Government regulations have resulted in food loss.  Regulations are often based on quality standards that reject produce on the basis of size, shape, or color − factors that have nothing to do with safety.  The EU had a law that prohibited the sale of curved cucumbers because they did not stack well.  This ill-advised regulation was repealed, but supermarkets still do not accept curved cucumbers, so straight cucumbers have become the de facto standard, and curved cucumbers rarely leave the farm. 

Much food is discarded after it comes close to or passes “sell by”, “best by” or “best before” dates.  These dates are printed by the manufacturer and reflect the date that the manufacturer can guarantee quality and when they want purchasing to occur.  In the USA, they are typically conservative as manufacturers prefer consumers to purchase new product.  With the exception of fresh meat and fish, they do not typically relate to food safety.  In many western European countries, companies compete on how long their products remain fresh.  For example, The Netherlands has “At least suitable until…” and “After opening tasty for another x days”.  Storage temperatures may be specified.  Use by and ultimate consumption dates typically relate to safety limits.

No one wants to eat unsafe food, but most of the food discarded by retailers and consumers is not based on safety. In fact, most foodborne illness reported in the media reflects food that was contaminated before packaging.  For example, the Salmonella outbreak in 2009 that made over 700 people ill and contributed to 9 deaths, resulted from a company that knowingly sold contaminated product rather than reduce their profits.  Food safety regulations, such as the US Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, aim to protect the public but cannot prevent unethical behavior.  Sell by dates are indications of quality and not a dividing line between safe and contaminated food.

Restaurants discard tons of food from the kitchen and from tables.  Restaurants prefer to offer every item on their menu at all times.  This requires that preparation anticipate maximum sales.   Food not sold is typically discarded.  Much of the food remains good, but many restaurant owners are loathe to donate it for fear of potential lawsuits.  Good Samaritan laws exist that prevent lawsuits, so the concern is basically unfounded.  Chefs know which foods could be safely donated.

Much food is discarded at the table because restaurants, primarily those in the USA, often compete on portion size.  “Super-size” has become a marketing program that either promotes waste or overeating – both undesirable outcomes. 

Reducing Food Waste

Food is a valuable resource and it makes sense to utilise food that remains good for human consumption.  Discarded food contains nutrients that could be returned to the soil or used for energy instead of being buried in a landfill.  Food discards add odor and sanitation risks when handled in the waste stream.  For all of these reasons, it is prudent to increase awareness of food waste entering municipal solid waste and work to reduce that waste.

If private households and the retail sector (including wholesale, hotels and restaurants) in the EU reduce food waste by 40% in 2020, they would realise an annual savings of €123 per person. The total savings for the EU would be 75.5 billion, or $170/person.  Environmental impact would also be reduced.  Adding the food requirements for a growing population, there is compelling reasons to make food recovery a priority.

Packaging plays a significant role in reducing food waste and loss.  It can also impact consumer behavior and promote waste.  Few agricultural products and no animal or processed foods will last long without packaging.  Packaging reduces food loss at every stage from farm to table.  But wastage is impacted by portion size, safety impressions of “best by”, “sell by” and other dates, presence or absence of safety indicators and effectiveness of reclosable features.  Large food packages often have a lower cost per unit weight but if some of the contents are not eaten, both waste and cost increase.   “Best by”, “sell By”, “use by” and other dates should be better defined and consumers made aware that these dates are primarily advisory.  A presenter at the 1st Save Food Congress asked how many people throw out a TV (or automobile) at the end of the warrantee period?  In past years, consumers smelled milk to determine if it turned – that today could be weeks after the “sell by” date.  It is worth mentioning that sour milk or moldy cheese are undesirable but not a health hazard.  Many foods have no safety limitation on shelf life.  Canned foods and dried foods do not allow microbial growth and stay safe indefinitely if they remain sealed.  Bottled water and honey have code dates although their shelf life is indeterminate. 

Food waste can be reduced by keeping regulations based on safety and eliminating regulations based on marketing, trade and other non-safety issues.  Absolute safety is unattainable, so regulations must incorporate a risk/hazard analysis.  Regulations on thermal processing must be effective in killing pathogenic bacteria.  Ingesting Clostridium botulinum toxin, for example, is often fatal.  Contamination, on the other hand, must be evaluated.  Number of insect parts in agricultural products, for example, is regulated.  Consumers may desire a zero level that would essentially ban virtually all food.  How much food should we exclude?  The tighter the regulation, the more food is discarded.   This author suggests that starvation be considered a food hazard, and therefore require that food regulations consider both risk assessment and food elimination.  This is likely a hard sell in the developed world, but an important consideration globally.

The Global Harmonization Initiative ( was formed to promote food safety regulations based on sound science and eliminate regulations that lead to destruction of tons of food for non-safety issues. This initiative includes ambassadors that promote building a common set of food regulations among countries and working groups that evaluate the scientific literature to recommend the basis for specific harmonised regulations.

Restaurant waste can be reduced both at the restaurant and by promoting alternate use of otherwise discarded food.  Wouldn’t it be more efficient for a restaurant to offer a reasonable portion and offer seconds rather than supply more food than a reasonable consumer would eat?  There are restaurants that do this and cut both their costs and waste.   These restaurants promote satiety not gluttony – better for them, the environment and the customer.

Unavoidable waste at restaurants could be utilised in a number of ways.  Safe food can be donated to food pantries, shelters and other food outlets.   Good Samaritan laws allow restaurants to offer food without liability.  This author suggests that foods that become contaminated with non-lethal organisms (salad bar items, buffet items, dairy, cheese and bread items that can sour or mold, etc.) be presented with a warning that states something along the lines that hunger (starvation) is worse than a belly ache but there is limited risk.  Such food could be irradiated that would eliminate this risk and regional irradiators could be considered.

Food that is safe but unfit for human use may be utilised for feed.  Inedible food can be composted to return nutrients to the soil.   The municipality of Arles, France, for example, has installed recycling bins for food waste that is collected for commercial composting.

Can we make food waste unacceptable?  Can we encourage households to reduce their volume of food waste and separate discarded food from the municipal waste stream?  

Consumers often underestimate the amount of food they throw out.   Food waste reduction should take two forms: 1) waste less food, and 2) find better uses for the discarded food. Increased understanding of portion sizes, code dates and food safety will begin to reduce waste, increase consumption of the food purchased, and reduce costs.   

Pay As You Throw (PAYT) has been successful in building awareness and promoting recycling of packaging, paper and other materials.  Municipalities typically include a flat rate for garbage pick-up in regular taxes.  Consumers often do not know the cost of this service.   PAYT ideally replaces this tax with a cost for garbage pick-up based on how much waste is presented for collection.  One method is for the municipality to require waste be placed in special garbage bags sold by the municipality.  Recyclables are often picked up for free, so recycling is encouraged.  PAYT has numerous advantages for municipalities, consumers, and the environment. A steady supply of recyclables allows businesses to depend on the supply and develop uses for these relatively inexpensive materials. Municipalities benefit from revenues from sale of recyclables. Shifting costs from taxes to PAYT offers more independence in management and finance of residential waste systems, and with awareness of discards, total quantities of waste decline. Consumers have the choice to reduce their disposal costs. The only downside is that PAYT costs are visible while flat-fee costs are not.  Any new “tax” will generate opposition, even if it results in lower costs than the previously invisible fee.  A PAYT system places higher costs to those who buy more services (i.e. it would be treated as any other utility). 

Can such systems work for food scraps?  This author proposes a PAYT program for food in which food waste is deflected from the normal waste stream and put into special biodegradable bags designed to contain the food and then degrade in commercial composting facilities. The most effective manifestation would outlaw organic waste (including food, yard waste, etc) from being included in normal waste pick-up.  Food waste must be placed in the purchased bag.  I propose that the revenues from the initial sale of the biodegradable bags be used for construction of commercial composting facilities.  (Commercial composting differs from typical composting in that it creates temperatures that render the resulting compost free of food pathogens that might be present in the original food, and degrade biodegradable materials that may not degrade in home composting.)  Nutrients are returned to the soil instead of being buried.

Significant benefits will accrue with the system in place, including:

·      Food waste will become more visible. Awareness will lead to more efficient food use, improved purchasing decisions, and encourage using good food even if passed its “best by” date.  With rising food costs, this could offer consumers significant savings.

·      Food waste will decrease. PAYT systems have resulted in declining discards because wasteful behavior now has a cost consequence.

·      Nutrients will be returned to the soil. With commercial composting, food nutrients are converted to rich humus that can be used to enhance municipal green areas and be made available to residents for food and ornamental gardens.

·      Landfill volume will decrease. Organic waste diverted from the landfills results in reduced tipping fees and increased longevity for landfill facilities. This translates to cost savings.

·      The waste stream will be cleaner. Organic waste in the municipal waste stream increases odor and sanitation hazards. This program deflects organic waste to more useful purposes.  In addition, anaerobic degradation of organic matter in landfills produces methane, both a hazard and potent greenhouse gas. Separated and concentrated organic waste could be aerobically degraded or anaerobically degraded with methane collection for energy use.

·      Total disposal costs will decline. Once the commercial composting facility is in place, the municipal waste system will be more cost effective, with recyclables and organic waste diverted to useful purposes, resulting in a smaller waste stream.

·      Sustainability will be enhanced. Diverting any waste materials into useful products promotes sustainability. Resources are maintained rather than discarded. The humus resulting from composting can be used for home gardening, a growing trend with rising food costs. Expanded local food supply reduces energy requirement to transport food from afar, an additional sustainability improvement.  If the anaerobic degradation option is used for organic waste, energy is produced from a previous waste product.

Food loss and food waste are a huge global problem that will only accelerate as the population increases and food costs rise.  Reducing food waste increases our effective food supply, reduces hunger, promotes sustainability, reduces costs of food and garbage disposal, benefits the environment  and is a more efficient use of resources.   Doing so is in everyone’s interest.

Dr Kenneth S. Marsh CPP, CFS is President, Kenneth S. Marsh & Associates, Ltd  (, and Executive Director of the Woodstock Institute for Science in Service to Humanity (  He is a Fellow of the [US] Institute of Food Technologists and the Institute of Packaging Professionals, a Certified Packaging Professional, a Certified Food Scientist, and recipient of the 2015 Elizabeth F. Stier Award for humanitarian contributions for his work on global food security.

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IUFoST Scientific Information Bulletin (SIB)



John Spink, PhD
Food Fraud – and the focus on prevention – is an important and evolving food industry focus. Even though the vast majority of these incidents do not have a health hazard in some ways they are more dangerous because the substances and actions are unknown and untraceable.  The types of food fraud stretch the traditional role of food science and technology to include criminology, supply chain traceability and other control systems. The food authenticity and integrity testing will be the most complex actions and their value should be assessed in terms of the contribution to prevention. This Scientific Information Bulletin (SIB) presents an introduction, review of incidents, the fundamentals of prevention which then provide insight on the optimal role of Food Science and Technology.
See IUFoST SIBS below for the complete Food Fraud Prevention Scientific Information Bulletin.






Congratulations Prof. Dr. Purwiyatno Hariyadi

Congratulations to Prof. Dr. Puwiyatno Hariyadi who has been elected to the position of Vice-Chair of the  CODEX Alimentarius Commission.

Dr. Hariyadi is a Fellow of the International Academy of Food Science and Technology (IAFoST) and Senior scientist, SEAFAST Center; Professor, Dept. Food Science and Technology, Bogor Agricultural University, Indonesia.

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