Between new approaches to labeling, innovative coatings, redistribution and data-driven solutions, retailers across the Western world continue to fight the good fight against food waste.
In its 2020 Drawdown Review, Project Drawdown cited food-waste reduction as the #1 solution in a list of 80+ solutions for combating climate change. Both governments and the business community have mobilized in recent years to make sure the roughly 40 percent of food we waste per year (in the US alone) gets put to use — with multi-pronged efforts to eliminate wastage throughout the supply chain, from farm to factory to fork — and angles from which to approach the problem are endless. Here, we’ll focus on developments in retail.
One approach that has continued to gain popularity with retailers is eliminating labels that may encourage consumers to throw out food prematurely. In a 2015 report, Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP) estimated that an increase on product life (as determined by ‘sell by’ or ‘best before’ labels) of just one day across a range of foods could prevent roughly 250,000 tons of food waste each year — in households and in the supply chain.
European grocers have led the charge on changing their approach to labeling to mitigate food waste. France’s Carrefour says it was the first retailer to alter or scrap best-before dates (which are about quality or aesthetics — vs use-by dates, which suggest the food may not be safe to eat past a certain date) on more than 500 of its own-brand products, back in 2014; and Germany’s Aldi and Lidl and Ireland’s Supervalu chains have generally eschewed best-before dates on unprocessed fruit and vegetables in order to avoid food waste. Shortly thereafter, retailers in the UK began following the logic. Tesco eliminated best-before dates on its own-brand produce in 2018. Marks & Spencer and Waitrose have followed suit in the past month. In January, Morrisons removed use-by dates from its milk packaging — instead, asking shoppers to smell the milk to assess its freshness.
Non-labeling (or non-non-labeling, as it were) solutions are also in development: Earlier this year, Lidl Switzerland announced it was working with the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa) on a solution for fresh produce waste — a cellulose protective coating for fruit and vegetables. While plastic packaging can protect fruits and vegetables from spoilage, it also creates significant amounts of often unrecyclable waste. Lidl Switzerland and Empa researchers have now developed a protective cover for fruit and vegetables made from pomace — the solid residue left over after extracting the juice from fruit, veg or plants (in this case, carrots) — that, in testing, extended the shelf life of foods including bananas and cucumbers by more than a week. No word yet on when the coating might be rolled out into stores; but if used at scale, the innovation could greatly reduce both packaging and food waste.
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Another strategy retailers are increasingly counting on is redistribution of excess food — whether through charities such as Fare Share, non-profit grocers such as Daily Table, redistribution apps such as Too Good to Go and more. Figures released last month from WRAP show that the amount of food saved from becoming waste continues to rise significantly — even against a backdrop of rising food prices and impacts on the supply chain, the collective efforts of the UK’s retailers, food manufacturers, hospitality & food service businesses, and voluntary sector still managed an impressive 16 percent increase in surplus food redistribution in 2021. In that year alone, more than 106,000 tonnes of surplus food — the equivalent of 253 million meals — were redistributed via charitable and commercial outlets.
Meanwhile, here in the US, AI-powered fresh food tech startup Afresh just announced a $115 million Series B funding round. The company — which has pioneered a data-driven solution for retail forecasting, inventory, ordering and store operations — says it will use the investment to scale across thousands more stores and expand the footprint of its Fresh Operating System to support new fresh categories such as meat and bakery.
Originally conceived as a grad school project by co-founder Matt Schwartz, Afresh was founded in 2017 with the mission to eliminate food waste and make fresh food accessible to all. Since then, the startup has grown rapidly with grocery partnerships in over 3,000 stores and 40 states — including Albertsons, WinCo Foods, Heinen's, Save Mart, Bashas, Cub Foods and more.
"Food, more so than anything else, shapes the health of people and our planet. We founded Afresh with the purpose of eliminating food waste and making nutritious food more accessible,” Schwartz says. “We're thrilled to use this capital to expand the scale and scope of our Fresh Operating System."
Aiming to serve 10 percent of US grocery stores by the end of 2022, Afresh tripled its customer base in 2021. On average, the company says stores using its technology reduce food waste by 25 percent or more; and it is on track to help retailers save 34 million pounds of food waste by the end of 2022. The new funding will also be used to grow Afresh's team and expand internationally to Europe.