Food waste is rising up the agenda

Another key issue that has been highlighted by COVID-19 is food waste. This has long been a global challenge. According to a study conducted for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), one-third of food produced for human consumption goes to waste – recovering just half of that would be enough to feed the world.

Nevertheless, this is a topic that has historically struggled to gain much traction with consumers. That’s partly because, spurred on by the media and government initiatives, consumers have prioritised addressing packaging waste, particularly plastic, as a means of addressing environmental concerns.

By contrast, food waste has been given less attention. Moreover, food waste is a complex issue, occurring across the value chain, making it hard for consumers to grasp. However, awareness of the issue had already been growing, only to be accelerated by the pandemic, which highlighted waste and fragilities in the food supply chain. A report by the OECD describes “unprecedented stresses”, with “bottlenecks in farm labour, processing, transport and logistics, as well as momentous shifts in demand” – all of which have been highly visible.

In the early days of the pandemic, empty supermarket shelves were a common sight, albeit exacerbated by consumers’ rush to stockpile food – particularly shocking for consumers in developed countries who had never known scarcity. Meanwhile, dairy farmers poured thousands of litres of milk down the drain and crops were left to rot in the fields.

Food loss and waste in industrialised countries are as high as in developing countries, but their distribution is different. In developing countries, more than 40% of food losses happen after harvest and during processing. In industrialised countries, more than 40% occurs at the retail and consumer level. In the EU, households generate more than half of the total food waste (47 million tonnes) with 70% of food waste arising in households, food service and retail.

Our social media research shows that this has been a hot topic online. In the USA, many consumers have expressed despair about food banks running out of food despite high levels of waste occurring throughout the supply chain. As a result, they are looking to manufacturers to address the issue, particularly through the use of technology.

Consumers are also reflecting on their individual behaviour as well as wider habits of consumption, and there has been significant discussion around initiatives such as moves to ban restaurants from throwing away food, and local composting projects.

The need to be more economical has also prompted conversation around how people can cut back on food waste in order to stretch their grocery budget further.

More than three-quarters of consumers (77%) now see food waste as a concern – and limiting it is seen as one of the top three priorities for manufacturers. Many manufacturers (and retailers) are aware of the importance of this issue and have already set food waste reduction targets. For example, members of the Consumer Goods Forum have committed to halving food waste in their operations by 2025 (download the full report for more on this).

Meanwhile, the UN recently introduced an annual International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste, observed for the first time on 29 September 2020. “[This] comes during the global COVID-19 pandemic that has brought about a global wake-up on the need to transform and rebalance the way our food is produced and consumed,” said a UN statement.

Legislation is on its way, too. As part of the new Farm to Fork strategy, a key element of the European Green Deal, the EU will step up its action to prevent food loss and waste along the whole food value chain. This includes legally binding targets for food waste reduction by 2023. As with food safety, consumers will increasingly look for transparency throughout the supply chain to reassure them that the food waste challenge is being sufficiently addressed.

Case study: I-Mei, Taiwan

I-Mei hi-fiber soy milk, packaged in Tetra Top® Nallo 330ml and Tetra Rex® 1L packages

Taiwanese food and drink producer I-Mei is working to reduce food waste by turning okara – the insoluble parts that remain after puréed soybeans have been filtered in the production of soy milk and tofu – into a high value ingredient. By upcycling this production waste, I-Mei is addressing a common challenge in the plant-based beverage industry.

Fibre-rich okara forms part of the traditional cuisines of Japan, Korea and China, but had in the past been discarded, creating a significant disposal challenge for industry players, including I-Mei. Tetra Pak worked with them to develop a whole bean processing solution that could capture this unwanted material and incorporate it into their soy milk drinks, creating a premium, high-fibre product with no added sugar, excellent flavour, and a desirable smooth mouthfeel.

Packaged in Tetra Top® Nallo 330 ml and Tetra Rex® 1L packages, wholesome soy milk is a new concept about which I-Mei is continuing to educate consumers through above-the-line and below-the-line campaigns.

Read next insight: Consumers want to help – but labelling is key

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