Food waste is a growing concern for consumers as well as for the food and packaging industry. 

Waste not, want not.

That adage may date back to the mid-18th century, but is just as relevant in today’s farm-to-table chain. Given concerns related to both the environment and economy, food waste has become, quite literally, part and parcel of meat and poultry production, processing, packaging, preparation, consumption and disposal.

While discussions about sustainable packaging have ramped up over the past several years, food waste has emerged as a hot industry topic. In late 2015, the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) announced its first national food waste reduction goal of halving food waste by 2030.

Food waste is pivotal and more top of mind now for a variety of reasons. “The environmental impact of packaging is much less than if you wasted the whole food (in the package),” points out Liz Goodwin, senior fellow and director, food loss and waste for the World Resources Institute (WRI), Washington, DC, and a member of Champions 12.3, a coalition of executives from government, business, international organizations, research institutions, farmer groups and civil society working to dramatically cut food waste by 2030.

Brandi Buzzard Frobose of the Centennial, Colorado-based National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) on behalf of the Beef Checkoff, agrees. “The spotlight on food waste has intensified in recent years. As the world population continues to expand, so does the demand on our resources. There is increasing global concern about how we are going to feed our growing population, which of course leads to scrutiny about how we are wasting needed food and why,” she remarks.

Statistics on food waste pile up. According to research from Ohio State Univ., one-third of all food produced is never eaten, and the ensuing food waste and loss nears $940 billion in global economic losses. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that food and packaging/containers comprise almost 45 percent of materials in US landfills.

Drilling down a bit more, Goodwin, who works for WRI out of the United Kingdom, says that individual food waste statistics are high. “The average household with children wastes more than 60 lbs. of food a month. People don’t think they do that, and yet everyone wastes some food,” she points out.

Consumers are becoming more aware of food and packaging waste. Recent research from Chicago-based Mintel shows that 80 percent of food shoppers in the US agree that reducing food waste is as important as reducing packaging waste. Mintel’s research also finds that millennials believe that waste-reducing packaging features are worth some extra cost.

When it comes to meat and poultry waste in particular, the environment is affected in a unique way, notes Goodwin. “Per kilogram or pound, the environmental impact of meat is far worse than wasting vegetables because of the supply chain. You have to rear the animal, which eats crops, you have to process the animal down the supply chain through packaging, and by the time it reaches the household, there is a lot of carbon and water use,” she explains.

Goodwin cites common reasons for meat and poultry waste. “People buy too much and it goes out of date and they throw it away. Also, many people don’t know how they can cook it or freeze it to not waste it,” she remarks.

Industry’s plan

As consumers become more aware of food waste, manufacturers are keeping pace – some faster than others. In an August report, Mintel’s global food and drink analyst Patricia Johnson declared that meat and poultry manufacturers have yet to link resealable product features with messages about reduced food waste. “In fact, ‘less food waste’ positioning is just beginning to emerge globally, driven primarily by ‘ugly fruit’ campaigns, but other products are starting to jump on the bandwagon,” she points out.

The beef industry, for its part, is hitching efforts to that food waste bandwagon with programs like the 30-Day Food Waste Challenge that began in August 2016. “The 30-Day Food Waste Challenge is a call to action encouraging people to waste less food. Inspired by the growing demand on our food supply, the Food Waste Challenge arms consumers with the facts about food waste in America, tips and resources to help them waste less food and encourage others to join in as well,” Frobose explains.

Those resources include creative recipes for using beef leftovers and advice on how to store food properly to stay fresher longer, Frobose says. Already, NCBA and the Beef Checkoff are planning to extend the Food Waste Challenge to more consumers and operators.

Others in the farm-to-plate chain are doing their part to reduce waste. Nebraska rancher, blogger and food waste advocate Terryn Drieling says that farmers and ranchers focus on food waste as part of their overall sustainability programs. “From the farms that grow and raise our food to the stores that bring it to us, a lot of hard work, commitment and resources go into the food we eat – which is one reason why it’s unacceptable to waste it. As a producer and – at the same time – a consumer, my growing concern about food waste has caused me to take action both on my farm and in my personal life,” she says.

 Ground Beef
When freezing food for two months or longer, a second layer of wrap will help to prevent freezer burn. 

Likewise, meat and poultry processors have created various initiatives to reduce waste as part of their sustainability programs. Tyson Foods, Springdale, Arkansas, for example, started a Go Green program in 2016 at five of its pork plants. Since it began, more than 8.6 million lbs. of materials have been recycled and diverted, an average of 40 percent of material bound for landfills. Smithfield, Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, which has encouraged its processing facilities to meet zero-waste-to-landfill best practices, has identified vendors that will accept and recycle bags with liquid purge from meat products and cooking bags.

Goodwin has some advice for processors looking to reduce waste in their own business. “They need to look at what’s going on in their operations – do they know how much material they are buying, how much waste they are creating and how much money they are losing? Once you start measuring, you can start creating targets and set about reducing waste,” she advises.

Many retailers, too, are doing their part. Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee Food Stores, for instance, recently reported that it diverts more than 2 million lbs. of food waste from landfills every month.

This summer, Wal-Mart began requiring suppliers under its Great Value label to use a standardized date label, “Best if used by” to help reduce confusion about freshness and lower waste related to package dates. “I expect the standard labels to have an even bigger impact on waste reduction since many of our suppliers sell products under their own labels outside of Wal-Mart. This is significant, as the global economic impact of food wastage comes to about $750 billion each year,” remarked Frank Yiannas, vice president of food safety.

Packaging suppliers are getting innovative in reducing waste, through the use of less packaging material and more recyclable packaging materials. Packaging innovations are geared around the notion as well: at a sustainability conference in Europe earlier this year, a chemist from Belarus presented a research paper on edible films, with a main component of starch that could be used with meat and poultry products to reduce packaging and food waste.

Other campaigns are working to extend food waste messages directly to consumers. A public service campaign called “Save the Food” was launched in early 2016 by the Ad Council and Natural Resources Defense Council to encourage consumers to reduce the amount of food they waste in their homes.

Ultimately, sharing information on how to reduce food waste throughout the supply chain is one of those win-win situations, Mintel’s Johnson says. “Providing meat, poultry and fish consumers with options that help them to control food use and reduce waste can appeal to both their needs for environmental responsibility and their desire to reduce food costs through avoiding food waste. Packaging has a clear role to play in assisting with limiting food waste,” she says, adding that on-package communication should clearly communicate that message to buyers.