Want to reduce food waste? Empower consumers to make better choices

By Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, Associate Dean, College of Management and Economics, University of Guelph

Rising concerns regarding food waste in the West recently has led a former top executive in the food retail business to develop a business model in which food waste is reduced upstream from consumers.

His concept, The Daily Table, is proposed as a chain of hybrid grocery store-restaurants cooking on-site with expired food products, and then selling nutritious counter-ready meals. The use of products would not be brand-driven, and most locations would be situated in underserved urban markets. By virtue of repurposing these products, such a project would extend the shelf-life of many food items that would often end up in landfills.

This undertaking reflects the growing unease generated by recent statistics that 90 per cent of consumers throw out food prematurely, and 40 per cent of our food supply is left unused every year due to problematic food dating. This equates to more than $1,500 of food per year for an average Canadian family of four, all of which are disturbingly high numbers.

A range of factors have contributed to this situation. First, western consumers are resistant to any imperfection in consumer products as a whole, and in particular have become accustomed to the highest quality foods at affordable prices.

After the United States and Singapore, Canadians have access to the cheapest food basket in the world. Abundance, affordability and convenience have encouraged consumers to become more risk averse, and increasingly favourable to food-related indulgence. The food industry has perhaps been too successful in giving consumers what they have become accustomed to: Tasty, appealing, and affordable food products. When an expiry date is reached, the alternatives are too compelling. It’s that simple.

This phenomenon is coupled with an increased focus on supply chain discipline. An increasing number of manufactures use “best before” dates on packages to coerce food distributors and retailers to manage inventory in stores in favour of profitability. Retailers are arguably more careful with product shelf-life, since dates are readily available to consumers. In turn, consumers have access to fresher, high-quality
products. As a result, inventory turnover has increased exponentially in recent years, since product dating has become ubiquitous in the industry.

However, some believe that supply chain discipline has gone too far; the example of “best before” dates printed on containers of pure honey – a product which never expires – has been used to exemplify the problem. Others have complained that labelling policies in Canada related to expiry and best before dates are too ambiguous. In comparison to the United States and other countries, however, Canada’s rules are relatively simple and straightforward. Indeed, other countries allow more abstract “Sell-by” or “Best-if-used-by” dates, which can further confuse the issue.

The challenge in food dating is to offer clearer information directly to consumers. When assessing risks in real-time, the primary source of information consumers have are the expiry or “best before” dates. The most effective method to empower consumers in reducing waste is by giving them access to more accurate information, at home, when products are in cupboards, freezers and fridges. To that end, a range of packaging strategies is required. Active packaging, or smart packaging, for example, is food packaging that interacts chemically or biologically with its contents. Labels could let consumers know if the product is still safe to eat.

Such technologies are readily available, but they come at a price; given that food safety presently has little or no currency in the Canadian marketplace, manufacturers have to think of ways to financially support this increase in cost. For some consumers, given how currently low profit margins are in the food industry, prices would need to increase in order to make smarter packaging on store shelves feasible.

An affordable solution might be actively incorporating the consumer as a part of the food industry’s food traceability scheme. Specifically, QR codes, the common square bar codes which can be scanned with any smartphone, could be used to give consumers more information about when the product was manufactured and expected shelf life. The QR code could also provide tips on how to repurpose food items that could be deemed unsafe to eat.

Short of increasing food prices, to give consumers direct access to data to make better choices, and in so doing reducing premature disposal of food, will likely make a difference.

Column supplied by Troy Media, http://www.troymedia.com

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