The effort to reduce global food losses and food waste must encompass all parts of the food supply chain, from primary production to retail and consumption. In 2013, the Nordic Council of Ministers launched three projects on food waste, which have looked into resource efficiency in primary production, date-labelling practices and the redistribution of surplus food.
By Páll Tómas Finnsson
Reducing food losses and waste in primary production
According to the FAO, about one third of all food produced in the world is either lost or wasted, which amounts to an estimated 1.3 billion tons per year. Food waste has been high on the agenda in recent years, but efforts to measure total food wastage along the entire supply chain have been somewhat halted by a lack of data on food losses in primary production. In response, the Nordic Council of Ministers initiated a project with the objective to develop definitions and data-collection methods that give more accurate estimates of the extent of food losses in the primary sector.
“If you look at primary production solely from a waste-management perspective, there’s actually not much food waste,” says project manager Ulrika Franke of the Swedish Board of Agriculture. “The reason is that most of the side flows from production are used for other purposes, such as feed or fertiliser.” This, however, does not provide the full picture, she says, as some of the side flows could in fact be used to produce food for human consumption.
“That should always be our first priority,” Franke affirms. “But we must also acknowledge that primary production is affected by a number of volatile factors, such as weather and markets, which can make it difficult to predict which crops will be suitable for food production. Therefore, we need to maintain the emphasis on resource-efficient utilisation of all surplus raw materials.”
The project group is now analysing data from a large study in which 6,000 farmers and fish farmers were asked about food waste in five selected product groups: carrots, onions, peas, wheat and farmed fish. This analysis will be complemented with field studies on harvest losses and storage waste, as well as interviews with food manufacturers. The purpose is twofold: to collect data on actual food losses in these categories and to test the data-gathering methodology.
Results from the project have been used to provide input into improved definitions of food losses and food waste in primary production, including those applied by the EU FUSIONS project. The aim is to develop harmonised definitions that permit more reliable comparison and are better suited to capturing the use of side flows in production. One example is that livestock is currently not defined as food until after slaughtering.
“This current definition only looks at what happens after the primary production,” says Franke. “Our definition will also cover the rearing of the animals – from birth until they leave the farm – and thus gives better insights into what actually happens with the side flows.”
Date labelling as a means to reduce food waste
Nordic specialists have also looked into the differences in food-labelling regulations and practices in Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden, to see if adjustments to these practices could reduce food waste. Studies from Norway show that 90% of all food waste in the retail sector is due to products that have passed their expiration date.
“Many consumers also throw out food when it has passed the ‘best before’ date, even though it’s still perfectly suitable for consumption,” says Hanne Møller, Senior Research Scientist at Norwegian Ostfold Research and project leader of Date-labelling and food waste.
She explains that best before is used for products that are safe to eat after they have passed the date, as long as the food’s quality is still acceptable. Use by, on the other hand, is intended for products that should not be consumed after the expiry date due to the risk of microbiological spoilage.
The project has sought to identify differences in the ways in which food-safety authorities interpret legislation on date labelling, as well as variations in the producers’ choice of date label and in the determination of shelf life for each product. Other factors influencing the food’s durability have also been studied.
“Our interviews with the manufacturers reveal considerable differences in the choice of date label for the products, determination of durability, packaging types and storage temperatures,” says Møller. In most cases, the products’ shelf life was longer in Norway than in the other countries.
The project’s second phase will provide a better understanding of the reasons behind these differences, i.e. if they are caused by conditions in the distribution chain, the choice of packaging or the type of modified atmosphere surrounding the food. In addition, a number of case products will be monitored throughout the food supply chain in order to measure food waste related to date-labelling. Alongside this work, the project will evaluate if trade regulations in the four countries could be made more flexible in order to reduce food waste.
“In theory, longer durability and shelf life should result in less food waste, but it’s a complex issue,” says Møller. “Our aim is to gather more specific data about food waste and evaluate how much it could be reduced by making adjustments to our date-labelling systems and practices.”
Food redistribution in the Nordic countries
The third Nordic food waste project aims to establish more efficient systems for redistribution of surplus food from the food sector to charity organisations and social clients, whether locally or through national food banks.
Food banks are a relatively new phenomenon in the Nordic countries. While there are 260 food banks in Europe, only three are to be found in the entire Nordic Region – in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Local direct distribution on the other hand, where food producers and retail companies give surplus food to charity organisations, has a long history in the five countries.
“Approximately 1.8 million meals are served from food banks in these three countries every year and the number is increasing,” says project manager Ole Jørgen Hanssen, Senior Research Scientist at Ostfold Research. “We see a large potential in further developing the concept, and aim to do so in a way that complements local efforts. It’s important to develop contracts with national food producers and retail chains that also promote implementation and redistribution at local level.”
According to Hanssen, increased awareness among public authorities, food producers and the general public is key if the food banks are to become a driving force in the redistribution of surplus food. As part of that effort, a seminar on food banks was held in Oslo on April 22, in co-operation with the EU FUSIONS project. Moreover, results from the Nordic redistribution and date-labelling projects were recently presented at a meeting in the EU Expert Group on Food Losses and Food Waste.
The continued work will be divided into four themes: organisational setup, quality assurance, registering and tracing the flow of surplus food, and, lastly, regulations and control measures. All of these issues will be addressed in co-operation with representatives from the Region’s food banks and charity organisations. A survey of best practices in redistribution is also underway.
“There’s a lot of good experience and routines that could form the basis of a Nordic model for redistribution of food,” says Hanssen. “Not necessarily as a harmonised system, but more as an opportunity for the countries to be inspired by best practices from around the Region.”