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Some 60% of the world’s largest food companies have pledged to halve food waste by 2030 in line with SDG 12.3. Diana Rojas talks to some of the leaders, including Tesco, Campbell Soup and Kellogg
At its headquarters in Camden, New Jersey, one of America’s poorest cities, the Campbell Soup Company converts bruised or undersized peaches destined for landfill into Just Peachy salsa, which is retailed locally, with profits going to the Food Bank of South Jersey.
At its Wrexham plant in Wales, US-based breakfast company Kellogg captures the corn dust that occurs during production and re-uses it in producing food. “It’s not particularly sexy… but when you’re talking about thousands of kilos, day after day, month after month, it adds up to a hell of a lot,” says Bruce Learner, Kellogg Europe senior manager of CSR and partnerships.
No one company, government or NGO can undertake all the changes necessary to eliminate unnecessary food loss and waste
Food waste may not be sexy, but some 60% of the world’s largest food companies by revenue now have targets in line with UN SDG 12.3, which aims to halve the amount of food lost and wasted by 2030, and half of those are working with their suppliers to bring them into line. That is according to a 2017 progress report by Champions 12.3, a 41-member coalition of public and private-sector executives that was launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos two years ago aimed at mobilising action to reduce food loss and waste globally.
Companies have taken initiatives such as donating unsold or surplus foods, partnering with farmers to increase yields and lessen crop losses, encouraging legislation to change food expiry labels, and reaching out directly to consumers to cut down dramatically on food waste.
With an average 14:1 return on investment, there is a solid business case for reducing food waste and loss, Champions 12.3 argues. Last year, the Global Agri-business Alliance – a CEO-led, private sector group – adopted a resolution that has leading agricultural company members committing to reduce their food loss by 50% by 2030.
The alliance’s commitment mirrors that of the 20-member US Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions, led by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the United States Department of Agriculture, while the 400-strong Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) made an even more ambitious resolution to halve food waste by 2025.
“No one company, government or NGO can undertake all the changes necessary to eliminate unnecessary food loss and waste,” says Learner. “As one of the first US-based companies to join Champions 12.3 ….we believe in the power of partnerships to bring attention and action in helping to end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture."
Tesco, the British supermarket giant and a pioneer in food waste reduction (whose CEO Dave Lewis chairs the Champions 12.3 coalition) last autumn announced that 24 of its largest food suppliers had made agreements with the company to adopt SDG 12.3 in their global operations. It is a move that has been praised by charities such as Feedback, which says in a report this month that over-production by farmers to meet exacting cosmetic standards is a major source of food waste. (See: The real food waste battle should be on the farm)
“The wrong approach would have been to just focus on our own operations,” says Mark Little, Tesco’s head of food waste reduction.
By instead taking a “farm to fork” approach, Tesco links producers with food manufacturers so, for example, wonky potatoes from a supplier can be sold to the company that makes mashed potatoes. In addition, the company markets unattractive but perfectly edible produce as “perfectly imperfect” and focuses on multi-buy promotions of bumper crops.
We consult with farmers on farming and storage practices that aim to reduce losses in the fields
The company has made a commitment that no food that’s safe for human consumption will go to waste from its UK retail operations by March this year, instead going to local charities. Since 2009 none of its food has gone to landfill. What is not fit for human consumption is turned into animal feed, or biofuels.
Similar programmes are embedded at Kellogg, where food waste (when determined it cannot be sold, donated or turned into animal feed) from its manufacturing locations in Wales is used to generate biofuels rather than trucked to landfills. Learner says a national landfill tax in the UK (introduced in 1996) has helped zero out the company’s landfill waste.
Success encourages replication, and as such Learner says Kellogg’s Polish and Belgian manufacturing sites have also been capturing and processing food waste into biofuels. The US EPA suggests a food recovery hierarchy, which Kellogg follows to prevent waste: first, reduce volume of surplus; next, feed hungry people; then feed animals. If that doesn’t work, convert into biofuels, compost and, last of all, landfill.
Bruce Learner of Kellogg: 'Food waste isn't sexy, but it adds up to a hell of a lot'. (Credit: Kellogg)
"Through the Kellogg’s Origins and post-harvest loss reduction programmes, we consult with and advise farmers on farming and storage practices that aim to reduce losses in the fields, increase yields and mitigate the effects of climate change on their farms," says Learner.
Melissa Donnelly, Campbell’s CSR manager of sustainability integration and metrics, says joining coalitions allows companies “to leverage our opportunity to do more”. But she notes that the number of companies reporting and accounting food loss and waste has been “a little slower than we anticipated”, in part because while data for some destinations, including animal feed and compost, has been available for a long time, information on other destinations is more difficult to obtain.
“Challenges arise around determining how much food waste is going to landfill, incineration, and sewage, for example,” Donnelly said, adding that organisations have to parse out food waste figures from other waste types.
Tesco publishes its methods as open source, encouraging other retailers to apply them too
Little admits that quantifying farm waste can be challenging, but notes that baselines need to be measured and targets set if SDG 12.3 is going to be met. “It’s a very challenging target,” he says.
Tesco, for example, began building its food waste reduction programme not as a corporate communications exercise but as a cross-functional approach. It was the first food retailer to publish waste data (in 2013). The company publishes its methods as open source, encouraging other retailers to apply them too.
One of Tesco’s keys to reaching its target of a 50% reduction in the intensity of food waste – tons of waste as a percentage of tons sold – has been in the redistribution of unsold food to charities via its community food connection programme. This was launched in 2016, in partnership with UK food redistribution charity FareShare. Now every UK store uses the FoodCloud and FareShare apps to post unsold surplus food on handheld devices in store and share the information with local charities that can accept (or not) to pick up the food free of charge. Similar programmes exist in Tesco’s central European, Thai and Malaysian stores (with other partners). The commitment is that by 2020 all stores will donate surplus food to local charities, says Little.
Like many other coalition members, Campbell’s has been internally tracking and redirecting food waste for the past decade. “It’s typical of a food company to have been thinking about food waste for a long time because of the many opportunities for food waste reduction in the supply chain,” says Donnelly.
Globally, nearly one third of food for human consumption is wasted from “farm to fork”
But last month, the company took a step towards addressing what companies and coalitions alike describe as the biggest piece of the food waste pie: consumer waste at home. In January, Campbell’s launched its UnCanned campaign, featuring user-friendly information for consumers about, among other topics, food waste and date labelling. Users click on colourful soup cans emblazoned with questions like: “Is this food waste thing really that big of a deal?”, with iconic yellow school buses scrolling across the screen to illustrate the statistic that the 60 million tons of food waste generated in the US each year could fill 4.5 million school buses. Another question asks: “Are ‘use by’ and ‘best if used by’ the same thing?” (short answer: No).
And during the Christmas holidays, Chicago-based Morton Salt, North America's leading salt producer, launched its #EraseFoodWaste campaign that invites customers to take a seven-day challenge to cut down on food waste. A companion commercial highlights the absurdity of common food questions like “why don’t we ever have anything to eat?” The company has a goal to eliminate food waste in its operations and offices by 2030.
Globally, nearly one third of food for human consumption is wasted from “farm to fork” according to Champions 12.3, totalling more than $900bn in economic loss. In the US, it’s estimated that households waste a quarter of the food they buy, adding up to losses of some $218bn in the cost of growing, processing, transporting and disposing of food that went uneaten, according to the National Resources Defense Council.
Data analysing the cost benefits of various strategies points to effective date labelling as the highest in financial benefit at $4,547 per ton, according to ReFED, a multi-stakeholder non-profit that is working to reduce food waste in the US. The next highest category, at $4,531 per ton, is consumer education.
Last September, the global Consumer Goods Forum and Champions 12.3 called on governments and companies to simplify food date labels to reduce food waste by 2020. They recommend that companies use only one label at a time, noting either an expiration date for perishable foods, or a food quality indicator (like “best if used by”) for non-perishable foods, and that the companies engage in better consumer education on the issue.
Food waste in the US is covered by a patchwork of state legislation
Four years ago, Tesco pioneered a national effort (in partnership with WRAP, the Waste and Resources Action Programme) to apply single-date coding to its fresh food and meat produce. Company evidence points to reduction in waste at the consumer level and in its own operations. And in 2016 Walmart, the world’s largest food retailer, required suppliers of its Great Value private label non-perishable foods to use a standardised “best if used by” date label.
With the exception of infant formula, food waste in the US is covered by a patchwork of state legislation, Donnelly says. Federal food date labelling legislation was introduced in 2016 to standardise the issue across the nation. It includes a dual-label system, with one for quality and one for safety, and the elimination of state laws banning the donation of food past the quality date, and consumer education. The bill has not been introduced in the new Congress.
Diana Rojas is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC and a regular contributor to the Ethical Corporation, focusing on environmental policy and sustainability issues. Diana is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese.
This is part of our in-depth briefing on Food Waste. See also:
Champions 12.3 tesco Feedback Campbell Soup Kellogg Dave Lewis US Food Loss and Waste 2030 EPA FareShare WRAP