The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Food Industry Food Waste

Food Industry Food Waste

Shoppers and Trends

July 30, 2013

Food manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers together disposed of a total of 4.1 billion pounds of food waste in the United States in 2011, according to a new study from the Food Waste Reduction Alliance (FWRA), Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the National Restaurant Association (NRA). This study was conducted with the objective of reducing the volume of food waste sent to landfills and is the first comprehensive assessment of food waste data collected directly from the food industry.

“Food retailers have been working on food waste prevention and reduction as individual companies for many years. In 2010, we launched The Food Waste Reduction Alliance as an industry-wide effort to address the issue through an aggressive, collaborative effort. The Alliance seeks to reduce food waste throughout the supply chain. This first industry assessment will allow FWRA members to create a point of reference for the current state of food waste, address barriers, and shorten the learning gap and implementation of innovative solutions,” says Jeanne von Zastrow, Senior Director of Sustainability and Industry Relations, FMI.

The total amount of food waste generated by the manufacturing sector in 2011 was 44.3 billion pounds – which is a staggering number. The good news, however, is that the vast majority of that waste (94.6%) was diverted from landfill. Seventy-three percent of this diverted food waste is converted to animal feed, and 20% is reused in land application (fertilizer).

In retail, food waste is diverted through very different channels. The total food waste at retail and wholesale sectors was 3.8 billion pounds in 2001, and over half (55.6%) of that was donated or recycled. The most common food waste diversion method for retail was composting, and many retailers are now able to perform the conversion process on site, saving time and money.

In terms of how waste breaks down by industry, the manufacturing sector disposed of 2.4 billion pounds, while the retail and wholesale sectors disposed of 1.7 billion pounds. Manufacturing waste tends to come from unused ingredients, unfinished product, or trimmings, peels and other waste. On the other hand, retail waste tends to consist of finished products (often in packages) more suitable for donation.

Most members of the food industry (more than three-quarters at 77%) report several barriers to preventing food waste donation. Transportation constraints are the biggest concern for manufacturers; liability concerns plague retailers most. Both manufacturers and retailers worry about their ability to store and refrigerate food waste before it is transferred to a food bank. 

The majority of both manufacturers (91%) and retailers (83%) cite insufficient recycling options as their top barrier to recycling food waste. Overall, cost, space, storage and personnel constraints make it tough for food industry members to divert more than they are already diverting in all arenas.

“The study revealed common barriers that can be addressed. Through coming together at events such as our upcoming Sustainability Summit, manufacturers and retailers can see the shared challenges and work toward solutions,” says von Zastrow.

Food waste is indeed a growing challenge for the food industry, especially in light of the large number of people suffering from hunger. Even with significant industry efforts to reduce waste, 30% of all food grown and processed in the U.S. is never eaten. Meanwhile, more than 49 million Americans have no idea where their next meal is coming from.

“This is a troubling issue and at the forefront of the industry’s mind as we work to remove both internal and external barriers to food donations. The study showed that retailers/wholesalers donated 670 million pounds of safe food that would have been otherwise disposed, yet the majority of respondents indicated barriers prevent their company from donating more unsalable food. The FWRA is excited to move forward and provide thought leadership and platforms to address these barriers through education, best practice sharing, and other industry collaboration,” says von Zastrow.

All this waste also contributes to greenhouse gasses. And economically, food waste not only represents a missed opportunity for converting waste streams into valuable energy sources, but it also represents an opportunity for improving industry inefficiencies. Reducing waste reduces costs for both businesses and consumers.

Since many survey participants brought to light a myriad of issues – some unique to a particular company and some affecting many – collaboration may be an important next step in improving the recycling, composting and donation efforts of manufacturers and retailers when it comes to food waste. Other future steps could likely include education and policy changes.

“Thanks to the survey data, companies are able to benchmark themselves against their peers and share targeted success stories and lessons they have learned,” adds von Zastrow.