Reducing food waste across the supply chain

A review of best practices and innovative initiatives of food facilities.

By Lisa Lupo

U.S. consumers waste nearly a pound of food per person per day — about one-third the daily calories that each American consumes.
©gumpapa | AdobeStock

U.S. consumers waste nearly a pound of food per person per day — about one-third the daily calories that each American consumes. That data comes from a study by a research team led by USDA Agricultural Research Service Postdoctoral Nutritionist Zach Conrad. As may be expected, the study found that those foods that are the most perishable are also the most often wasted: fruits and vegetables topped the list, followed by dairy and meat/mixed-meat dishes.

Although the study focuses on consumers, “food waste is an issue that plays out at many different levels,” Conrad said. “Looking at them holistically will become increasingly important to finding sustainable ways of meeting the needs of a growing world population.”

The issue goes well beyond the borders of the U.S. According to FAO, an estimated 30% of the food produced for human consumption globally is lost or wasted along the food supply chain. In fact, while also citing fruits and vegetables as a highly wasted commodity, an FAO study has shown that, in industrialized regions, most of these occur at harvest and during sorting and grading. This is likely due to discarding during grading to meet quality standards set by manufacturers and retailers.

WHAT YOU CAN DO. As the global food supply chain continues to lengthen and increase in complexity, the development of efficient solutions needs to focus on addressing the interlinkages of the chain. Determine how the practices and costs of each segment impact the quality and safety of the product as it flows downstream, and address the entire flow of your foods as you consider and apply sustainability solutions.

Exactly what are those? From donating surplus food to accepting the challenge to become a food loss and waste champion, food businesses across the nation are implementing sustainability practices, and organizations and consultants are providing ideas for implementation. Following are some industry best practices:

MEET THE CHALLENGE. The USDA- and EPA-sponsored U.S. Food Loss and Waste Challenge calls on entities across the food chain to join efforts to reduce and better manage food loss and waste. To join the challenge, organizations and businesses provide information on what they are doing in their operations to reduce, recover, and/or recycle food loss and waste. 

U.S. Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions have made the public commitment to reduce food loss and waste in their U.S. operations by 50% by the year 2030. The activities of the challenge champions are posted on the USDA website to relay best practices, stimulate the development of more entries, and provide a snapshot of the country’s commitment to — and successes in — reducing, recovering, and recycling food waste.

Since 2016, 21 corporations have been named as champions: Ahold USA, Blue Apron, Bon Appétit Management Company, Campbell Soup Company, Conagra Brands, Delhaize America, General Mills, Kellogg Company, PepsiCo, Sodexo, Unilever, Walmart, Wegman’s Food Markets, Weis Markets and YUM! Brands.

As examples of practices companies have implemented:

  • General Mills is focusing on zero loss in its production facilities through leadership commitment, waste stream auditing, gap analysis, and reduction plan development and implementation.
  • Kellogg’s committed to decreasing waste sent to landfills and developing sustainable agriculture practices with smallholder farmers in developing countries.
  • Blue Apron activities include introducing composting at its facilities and offices, building out a donation network, customizing food waste reduction plans for each of its facilities, and working on strategies for source reduction across the supply chain.

Learn how more companies fulfilled the challenge, what you may be able to apply in your business, and submit your efforts here.

CLOSE THE GAPS. Providing a menu of solutions to feed the nearly 10 billion people expected to make up the world’s population by 2050, Creating A Sustainable Food Future: Synthesis Report quantifies the core of the challenge as the need to close three “gaps”: in food production, agricultural land area, and greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation.

Primarily global in focus, the report focuses on technical opportunities and policies for cost-effective scenarios for meeting the goals by 2050 to also help alleviate poverty and not exacerbate water challenges.

Developed by a global partnership led by the World Resources Institute, the report’s “menu for a sustainable food future” includes:

  1. Reduce growth in demand for food and other agricultural products. Reduce the loss and waste of food intended for human consumption between the farm and the fork; change diets, particularly by reducing red meat consumption to contribute to better nutrition; avoid the diversion of edible crops and land into bioenergy production; encourage voluntary reductions in fertility levels by educating girls, reducing child mortality, and providing access to reproductive health services.
  2. Increase food production without expanding agricultural land. Increase field and animal yields of meat and milk through improved feed quality, grazing management, and related practices; accelerate crop yield through improved breeding; boost yields on drylands through improved soil and water management practices; boost crop production by increasing the number of harvests per year from existing croplands or leaving cropland fallow less often; employ all these practices and additional targeted interventions to avoid adverse effects of climate change on crop yields and farming viability. 3. Protect and restore natural ecosystems and limit agricultural land-shifting. Protect ecosystems by legally and programmatically linking productivity gains in agriculture to governance that avoids agricultural expansion; where expansion seems inevitable, limit it to lands with the lowest carbon and other environmental costs; protect the world’s remaining native landscapes; reforest abandoned, unproductive, and unimprovable agricultural lands and those in areas of reduced food demand or increased agricultural productivity; avoid further conversion of peatlands into agriculture and rewet little-used, drained peatlands.
  3. Increase fish supply. Stabilize long-term wild fish catch by reducing overfishing; increase aquaculture production through improvements in breeding, feeds, disease control, and production systems.
  4. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production. Develop and deploy feed additives to reduce methane releases from ruminant animals; advance technologies to reduce emissions from the manure management in concentrated animal production systems; develop and deploy nitrification inhibitors (on pastures and/or in animal feed) or breed biological nitrogen inhibition traits into pasture grasses; reduce overapplication of fertilizer and increase plant absorption; reduce methane emissions from rice paddies through variety selection and improved water and straw management; reduce energy-generated emissions by increasing efficiency measures and shifting energy sources to solar and wind; concentrate efforts to sequester carbon in agricultural soils on practices that have the primary benefit of higher crop or pasture productivity and do not sacrifice carbon storage elsewhere.

13 INITIATIVES. A new report from Boston Consulting Group (BCG) discusses the issues of food loss and waste, and actions that can be taken by the food supply chain to reduce their impact — and benefit the business. Stating that the greatest loss and waste occur in production and consumption, BCG’s Tackling the 1.6-Billion-Ton Food Loss and Waste Crisis report ( identifies five drivers of the problem and provides 13 initiatives food companies can take to significantly reduce it. Following are brief summaries of these:

Awareness. “A major effort to increase awareness among all stakeholders is crucial — with particular emphasis on encouraging consumers to shift away from products that contribute to waste. Such action could reduce the problem by $260 billion annually.”

  1. Work with farmers to improve harvesting techniques and crop protection against pests, diseases, and weeds to reduce loss during and after harvest.
  2. Design or redesign products, packaging, and promotions (e.g., using packaging that extends shelf-life, offering imperfect produce at a discount, participating in fair trade, etc.).
  3. Raise awareness of efficient inventory management and repurposing/recycling waste through programs such as that of a food waste tracking system which identifies the causes (e.g., overproduction, trim waste, spoilage) and provides automatic goal setting and instant alerts.
  4. Add repurposing and recycling to product packaging to encourage action by consumers.
  5. Supply chain infrastructure. “Deploying more-advanced supply chain solutions — including cold chain in developing markets — could reduce the problem by $150 billion annually.”

  6. Invest in expanding and improving the cold chain infrastructure. For example, use remote container management (RCM) for temperature-controlled shipping to identify and correct any issues and reduce food spoilage.
  7. Adapt technologies designed for large-scale operations to smallholder farming for suppliers in developing areas.
  8. Repurpose/recycle unmarketable crops, byproducts, and food waste through donations or use in non-human-food products (e.g., cosmetics, biofuels, and animal feed).
  9. Supply chain efficiency. “Digital supply chain tools can allow better matching of supply and demand, make transactions in the supply chain more efficient and seamless, enable the tracking of loss and waste, and even allow for dynamic pricing, which can move products through the system before they expire.” Widespread adoption could reduce the problem by $120 billion annually.

  10. Increase local ingredient and input sourcing. Though this can require adjustments in product ingredients and formulas, along with investments to train and support local farmers, it reduces the time in transit and, thus, spoilage.
  11. Set KPIs for food loss and waste, track performance against those metrics, and adapt processes to improve performance.
  12. Collaboration. “Improved coordination among producers and suppliers could reduce the problem by $60 billion annually.”

  13. Join forces, including applicable government agencies to develop more accurate supply and demand forecasting models; include government in the initiative.
  14. Structure supply contracts and agreements in a way that reduces loss and waste, e.g., setting prices and volumes that reduce incentive for farmers to overproduce.
  15. Policy environment. Regulations, taxes, and policies that encourage more consistent repurposing and recycling of food into the highest value products possible could reduce the problem by $110 billion annually.

  16. Setting of industry standards, including clear date labels, such as “sell by,” “best by,” and “use by” dates can help reduce consumer confusion which can cause unnecessary food waste.
  17. Support and promote national and state regulations or taxes that encourage food donations and increase the costs associated with discarding food.

Although the implementation of practices to reduce food waste and loss is an opportunity to do one’s part in the development of a sustainable food future, it also provides positive business impacts. According to Hartmann Group’s Sustainability 2017 report, about one fourth of consumers surveyed said environmental and social concerns impact their purchasing and nearly as many increased sustainable purchasing in the last year. Could any of the initiatives in this article benefit your business?

The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at

January 2019
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