How food manufacturers are tackling waste management

We are growing ever more conscious of the food we eat and where it is sourced. Globalisation of the food chain brought increased choice and lower prices, but increased knowledge of food and production methods is shifting perception and preferences.

YouGov estimates up to 10% of the UK are either vegan or vegetarian and a bigger emphasis is being given on farm to table, consumers want to know where their food is coming from.

Waste has always been a factor in the food industry throughout the entire supply chain. Innovative companies have been stepping up to help tackle the issues downstream. Oddbox supplies seasonal fruit and veg direct from farms that is ‘too big’ or ‘too small’ for the high cosmetic standards of supermarket chains; and Winnow is helping commercial kitchens cut their food waste in half by providing new insights from tracking and weighing their food as it is disposed.

Efforts, or the lack of, from food manufacturers tend to go unnoticed, far away from the eyes of the consumer. Some are at least trying; 209 producers and manufacturers have signed up to the voluntary Food Waste Reduction Roadmap set up by environmental charity WRAP and IGD, whose 2021 report indicated 250,000 tonnes of food (worth £365m) had been saved, alongside 670,000 tonnes of GHG emissions.

How big could that impact be if all 11,500+ of the UK’s food and drink manufacturing businesses signed up? If the UK plans on hitting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 of halving food loss and waste by 2030 – currently at c. 9.5m tonnes/year – we need strict targets from the Government and funding funnelled to new technologies, not voluntary roadmaps.

It is also not fully clear where all of this waste was diverted, perhaps to anaerobic digesters for energy production or repurposed into animal feed. But in a system where the end goal is producing calories to feed the world, and the high levels of resources (water, feed, fertiliser) that are fed into the process, you see diminishing returns on that waste.

Shelf-life extension is a tool being utilised to reduce food waste downstream. Companies such as It’s Fresh! for example, whose small ethylene absorber is placed inside fruit and veg packages to slow the ripening process. Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) is another recognised technology to extend shelf-life, creating a protective atmosphere around the food through specific gas mixes.

More can always be done, and public pressure is building. The BBC’s 2015 documentary Hugh’s War on Waste shed a light on the one third of UK food produced that ends up in the bin. There isn’t one answer to the problem, but solutions are being sought up and down the chain to do every bit they can.

By Conor Barrett on 26/04/2022