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How Retailers are Reducing Waste in the Pork Chain

UK - Finding ways to limit retail waste has been identified as a key part of the battle in securing food supplies for the world’s growing population. In the second of a series of articles, Voice Of Sustainable Pork examines what retailers are doing to cut waste in the pig supply chain.
calendar icon 28 July 2016
clock icon 1 minute read

It’s dubbed the challenge of the century. As the global population rises to 9 billion by 2050, the world’s food producers are faced with the task of finding a way to feed them.

Producing more food might seem like the obvious answer, with targets of increasing food production by 70 per cent being suggested by some. But to ease pressure on land use and natural resources, making better use of existing food is a critical part of the solution.

Every year, some 4 billion tons of food is produced globally, yet a third of it is wasted. Worth $1 trillion (£767 billion) in retail terms, the waste is a missed opportunity to feed more people, as well as a significant cause of environmental damage.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, cutting food waste could not only reduce strain on the world’s natural resources but also limit pressure on farmers to produce more food. Given the high water, energy, feed and land requirements of livestock production — as well as the high nutritional value of animal protein — curbing waste of pork and other meat products is especially important.

Although waste occurs at every link of the pork chain, with the vast majority of waste happening at the consumer level, retailers play a crucial role in reducing waste from farm to fork.

Identifying the cause

In the UK alone, retailers waste about 72,000 tons of fresh meat annually, more than a third of which is pork.

The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), a non-profit working on behalf of UK governments to tackle waste, says there’s no single cause of waste in the sector, but factors related to supply management, shopkeeping and operations all contribute to the problem.

More specifically, retailers identify promotions, forecasting demand and weather as the main culprits of waste, with meat sales falling in the UK when cooler-than-expected weather thwarts summer barbecues.

To tackle the problem, WRAP has introduced a range of voluntary retailer initiatives to help retailers identify where they can make commitments to drive down waste.

In the past, retailers have been encouraged to limit the number of promotions they offer on products — particularly fresh meat — which encourages shoppers to buy more than needed, resulting in food waste at home.

The latest initiative, the Coutauld 2025 Agreement, was launched last May and has a target to cut food waste by a fifth over the next decade, while helping the food sector drive down greenhouse-gas emissions by 20 per cent at the same time.

A step-change in food production

Richard Swannell, WRAP’s director of sustainable food systems, says the agreement marks a “new era” for the food industry, helping the UK economy save about £20 billion ($26 billion) to businesses and consumers.

“To safeguard UK food we need a step-change to increase sustainable food and drink production, conserve resources and combat climate change,” he says. “Courtauld 2025 will do this.”

But how exactly can retailers tackle the issue of reducing waste, particularly in the pig-meat sector? Previous studies have indicated there are several areas where retailers can make efforts — the first being the shelf life of products.

In the UK alone, consumers throw away about £6.7 billion ($8.7 billion) of food and drink each year due to it not being used by the expiration date, so increasing product life in a way that doesn’t compromise food safety or quality is one solution, WRAP says.

Retailers have been encouraged to redesign packaging of its own products, as well as look at products’ “dwell time” — the amount of time they spend in the supply chain before they get to consumers’ plates.

Retailer ASDA says it tackled the issue by working with suppliers to reschedule when food is shipped to them, as well as improving delivery plans and developing systems in-store to get products to shelves faster.

Another element in the shelf-life issue, however, is consumer understanding of how long products can be kept. Shelf life varies hugely between pork products, ranging from 7 to 20 days for sausages, to up to a year for frozen pork cuts.

To tackle this, many retailers have now removed “best before” dates on their packaging, which are related to food quality but have been shown to confuse customers. Instead, they switched to “use by” labels, which indicate the date by which food must be used.

Communication with suppliers

Relationships between retailers and suppliers are another area for improvement. Retailers and processors must forecast supplies to make sure supermarket shelves remain stocked, but without proper communication, oversupply can lead to waste.

Retailers are now being encouraged to work together with processors so they can work to order, rather than rely on forecasts, helping with production planning and reducing waste. One UK supermarket, Morrisons, has gone even further by taking control of its entire supply chain to cut waste.

Taking a charitable approach

Even with the best planning, things can still go awry, so finding ways to make use of food that would otherwise be wasted at store level is important.

UK retailer Tesco says it was responsible for throwing away 55,400 tons of food from its stores and distribution centers in the last year. Of that, 30,000 tons could have been eaten — the equivalent of 70 million meals.

In an effort to tackle the issue, the retailer has launched a scheme to redirect surplus food to charities across the UK. During a six-month pilot version of the scheme, Tesco stores donated 22 tons of food — the equivalent of 50,000 meals.

By the end of this year, the scheme will see 800 of its large stores give food they can no longer sell to community food groups, with all stores expected to participate by the end of 2016.

Waste bans

Meanwhile, French retail chain Intermarché ran a campaign to reduce waste further down the supply chain by encouraging customers to purchase “ugly” food, which would otherwise be thrown away.

France’s government is taking an even stronger approach, becoming the first in the world to introduce legislation to crack down on food waste earlier this year. Under the new laws, supermarkets are banned from throwing away unsold food and must instead donate it to charities or for animal feed.

French campaigners are now putting pressure on the EU to roll out similar rules across Europe, with over 760,000 people signing a petition to see the retailers forced to give surplus food to charity.

“We cannot sit back,” says French MEP Angélique Delahaye, who is helping to drive the campaign. “This is the first step in the fight against food waste in Europe.”

You can read Part One in this series, here.