Getting food waste down 25 per cent

The ForMat conference marked the official start of the project that is intended to prevent food waste in Norway. It gave us an insight into the food waste situation, both in Norway and around the world. It is estimated that half of all the food produced in the world is thrown away!

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Oddvin Sørheim

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The sheer amount of present day food waste is a serious social problem, and in Norway the food industry has gathered behind the ForMat project to prevent food waste. The aim of the project is to reduce the amount of wasted useable food by 25 per cent by 2015. Key components of the project will be the Lønnsom holdbarhet (profitable shelf life) competence network organised by Nofima and the research project Reduksjon av matavfall (reduction of food waste), in which Østfoldforskning, Nofima and the National Institute for Consumer Research (SIFO) will be working with the industry and the supermarket sector.

Food waste is a problem with many dimensions

The environment and climate, the world’s food supply situation and economy are all vital aspects of food waste. Enormous quantities of water are used to produce food, for example, and the world’s water shortage is increasing. With surveys showing that one kilo of potatoes takes 60 litres of water, one cup of coffee 140 litres, a glass of juice 170 litres and one hamburger as much as 2,400 litres of water to produce, we no longer have a choice – food waste must be reduced.

With a major part of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions coming as a result of food production, and the waste in itself leading to greater quantities of rubbish to be disposed of, there is no doubt that food waste is a gigantic environmental problem. Add to this the fact that the food being thrown away in the western world is more than enough to cover the food shortages in the rest of the world, not to mention that throwing away food is simply throwing away money, and it is clear that food waste issues must go right to the top of the agenda.

The Norwegian government has understood this, and the ForMat project is being supported by both the Ministry of Agriculture and Food and the Ministry of the Environment.

We throw away food because we have been badly brought up

Minister of Agriculture and Food Lars Peder Brekk pointed out that throwing away food comes from being badly brought up, adding that Norwegian consumers don’t have enough knowledge or education about the relationship between food, consumption, resources and climate and eco-problems.

“We don’t take the time to plan how we prepare and handle food. We lack basic knowledge about food, about how we should handle leftovers and what we could use them for – so we end up throwing them away,” says Brekk.

The British researcher and writer Tristram Stuart described the food waste problem in both a global and a British perspective. Much of the food that is grown is not even harvested or distributed to the industry because it has small flaws in its appearance – potatoes with “eyes” for example. Much of what gets to the industry is then thrown away because of the requirements for identical products.

“I have visited a sandwich producer where not just the crust but also the next slice was thrown away because it was a little bit smaller than the other slices of the loaf – and the requirement is that all slices must be identical. That means throwing away four slices, or about 20 per cent of every loaf. Naturally enough, that produces an enormous amount of waste. Now, that sandwich producer has come to an arrangement with a nearby farmer, who buys the bread to use as animal feed,” explains Stuart.

Many don’t understand “use by” dates

Ahead of the research project into reducing food waste, comprehensive surveys were carried out aimed at supermarkets and Norwegian consumers to find out why they throw away food.

“By far the commonest reason for supermarkets throwing away food is the date stamp and the need for freshness. For bakery goods, the need for freshness is vital, but date stamping requirements also apply to dairy products and meat and fish products,” says Ole Jørgen Hanssen of Østfoldforskning.

Among Norwegian consumers, the date stamp is also the commonest reason for throwing away food, and a lot of food is thrown out because people don’t understand the labelling.

“Fixing shelf life is primarily done for reasons of food safety, and when it comes to perishable products we must take the possible growth of pathogenic bacteria into account. In Norway these are marked with a “use by” date, while the term “best before” is mainly used with an eye to sensory qualities,” explains Kjersti Trømborg of Nofima.

“We will be working in several areas to achieve the goal of reducing food waste by 25 per cent, and the most important of these will be more knowledge about date stamps, better packaging, more efficient stock rotation and distribution and information campaigns aimed at the consumer,” says Hanssen.

Money talks

Among Britons and Swedes it has been found that the best argument for getting people to reduce food waste is to make them aware that they are throwing away their own money.

Julian Parfitt of Resource Futures presented the results of the major British food waste survey WRAP and how they are working to reduce food waste in Britain.

“The British throw away 5.3 million tonnes of perfectly edible food and drink every year. This corresponds to 20 million tonnes of CO2, equivalent to 25 per cent of the exhaust from Britain’s cars. In money terms, this waste represents 12.2 billion pounds a year, or 480 pounds a person. While the financial argument gets across to consumers, few of them think about the environmental effect. People prefer to think that food comes from the earth and goes back to the earth. They don’t see the big environmental problems, so they are more concerned about saving money than the environmental effects,” explains Parfitt.

The experience of the Stockholm Consumer Cooperative Society also shows that saving money is the best argument for not throwing away so much food. The average Swedish family with two children could save 8,100 kroner a year by reducing food waste.

The Society has been using blogs, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to try to get consumers to reduce food waste.

“We have had very good experience with the Facebook page Släng inte maten and the blog Louises konsumentkoll. It isn’t just consumers we are interesting; the industry is getting involved in a quite different way from when we send out e-mails, for example. Purely and simply because they know this is being read by their customers,” says Louise Ungerth, who is in charge of consumer and environmental issues at the Stockholm Consumer Cooperative Society.

Food safety and quality  

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