Zero Food Waste to Landfill

Features - Sustainability

A roadmap for reduction

July 31, 2019

By Lisa Lupo

The good news is the manufacturing segment of the food industry produces the least amount of food waste across the food chain — 2%. The bad news is that even 2% of 63 million tons is still 1.25 million tons of food wasted each year, equating to $4.36 billion of uneaten food. In total, the U.S. spends over $218 billion on food that is never eaten.

While food manufacturers can pat themselves on the back for their low portion of direct food waste, there are additional areas in which manufacturers contribute to, and can take steps to significantly reduce, food waste. As identified by the Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent from ReFED (, there are three that will have the greatest economic value per ton: standardized date labeling, consumer education campaigns, and packaging adjustments.

Although 43% of food waste nationally is generated in the home, the food industry has a significant stake in that. Thus, of the 27 best solutions to reduce food waste identified in the Roadmap, “consumer education and standardized date labeling are our top solutions,” said ReFED Founder and CEO Chris Cochran. Founded in 2015, the multi-stakeholder nonprofit ReFED was formed to “build a different future, where food waste prevention is recognized as an untapped strategy that can save resources, create jobs, alleviate hunger, conserve water, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions — all while stimulating a new multi-billion-dollar market opportunity.”

STANDARDIZED DATE LABELING. Confusion over the meaning of date labels is estimated to account for 20% of consumer waste of safe, edible food. Thus, a key initiative Cochran recommends for food manufacturers is the adoption of the standardized date label system of FMI and GMA, which also is now supported, in part, by FDA.

In an Open Letter to the Food Industry, FDA Deputy Commissioner of Food Policy and Response Frank Yiannas promoted the benefits of a streamlined food date-labeling system. In the letter, Yiannas discussed the work of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and Food Marketing Institute (FMI) to simplify and streamline product date labels, and their 2017 recommendation that the industry use two introductory phrases for product date labels:

  • Best If Used By. GMA/FMI recommend this for quality labeling, to indicate that, after a specified date, the product may not taste or perform as expected, but it is safe to be consumed. Yiannas said that FDA “strongly supports” the industry’s voluntary industry-wide efforts to use this as a standardized phrase for quality labeling. But, he added, “Labeling is not enough. FDA supports ongoing consumer education efforts by industry, government, and non-government organizations to educate consumers on what quality-based date labels mean and how to use them to further reduce food waste in the home.”
  • Use By. Termed a “discard label” by ReFED, GMA/FMI recommend this for perishable products that should be consumed by the date on the package and discarded after that date. In relation to his label, however, Yiannas said, “FDA is not addressing the use of a ‘Use by’ product date label for safety reasons at this time.”

ReFED supports both labeling standards, which Cochran sees industry as rapidly adopting. Thus, to further aid manufacturers in the determination of whether a quality label or a discard label should be placed on their products, the nonprofit developed a decision tree (above). The tree is intended to “help limit the number of products that are assigned a discard label and will reduce the unnecessary waste of products that are still safe to consume.” Additionally, because the labels address the expiration date of a food before it is opened, not after, the tree includes instruction that manufacturers may put additional guidance, such as “Once opened, eat within X days.”

In addition to updating the date label, Cochran recommended that manufacturers reassess the number of days they assign to a product’s shelf life. This should be maximized through input from across the company, as dates assigned by just the food safety team are likely to be conservative. Maximizing the date is economically advantageous for the business as well as the consumer, because it can increase consumer satisfaction as the food can be kept longer and is seen as being fresher upon purchase.

Figure 1. Best if Used by/Use by
Figure 2. Decision Tree
Figure 3. Economic Value

CONSUMER EDUCATION. “Once we have achieved label standardization, then we can do consumer education,” Cochran said. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), North American consumers lead the world in per-capita food waste. Thus, the primary goals of consumer education efforts would be to increase awareness, offer tips for extending food shelf life and properly storing perishables, and promote a culture of active waste avoidance. Messaging would be developed to appeal to a wide variety of values, including that of reducing food bills. Such increased awareness may also inspire consumers to demand that businesses operate more responsibly.

Though education could be brand specific, ideally, it would be coordinated across the industry, he said. In fact, large-scale consumer advocacy campaigns, that are focused on raising awareness of food waste and educating consumers on ways to save money and reduce wasted food, are considered by ReFED to be one of the top solutions with the largest total prevention diversion potential. As is explained in the ReFED Roadmap, “Launching a widespread training effort to change the behavior of food business employees is critical (particularly consumer-facing businesses). In addition, campaigns to raise food waste awareness among consumers need to attract additional funding and support to expand to the scale of anti-littering and anti-smoking efforts.”

Consumer education is also critical to the success of other Roadmap solutions, e.g., standardized date labeling and packaging adjustment solutions will be much more effective if consumers are aware of them.

PACKAGING ADJUSTMENTS. “Packaging is a huge opportunity,” Cochran said. “We need to fundamentally improve food packaging.” One of the greatest challenges is the decision between increased packaging of individual units to reduce food waste, or quantity packaging to reduce materials but potentially increase waste due, in part, to reduced shelf life. The manufacturers’ decision on these will affect both the downstream retailer and the consumer.

In making that decision, Cochran said, two key points should be considered:

  1. Ensure the packaging fulfills the basic purpose of protecting the food product and extending shelf life.
  2. Rethink material choices (e.g., reusable, recyclable, or compostable packaging) while thinking about extending shelf life.

From a climate perspective, Cochran added, the footprint of food waste is greater than the footprint of packaging. From an economic perspective, applying the 27 solutions of the Roadmap to cut food waste by 20% over the next decade would require an $18 billion investment but would yield $100 billion in societal economic value, including $2 billion in business profit per year.

FOLLOW THE HIERARCHY. Cochran recommends that manufacturers practice the following hierarchy for the greatest ecological and economic value:

  1. Prevention. Prevention is applicable across the chain — from farms to homes. The Roadmap shows that prevention creates three times the societal net economic value of recovery and recycling combined. The two most cost-effective solutions, Consumer Education Campaigns and Standardized Date Labeling, both require relatively low investment and prevent large volumes of food from being wasted, leading to high relative savings.
  2. Recovery. To determine recovery options, consider the secondary markets that could be using your byproducts. “A lot of startups have formed around the manufacturing sector,” Cochran said. “As we’re thinking about solutions, we need to start with manufacturing principles to maximize efficiencies and minimize waste.” Where there is excess food or byproducts, manufacturers need to find markets rather than paying to have them discarded.
  3. Recycling. Are there outlets for feeding excess product to animals, using centralized anaerobic digestion processes or processors, centralized composting facilities, etc.? Anaerobic facilities particularly seek the excess food from the manufacturing sector because they are usually large quantities of a similar product.

... Landfills. Think of landfill as a last resort; as not even part of the system. Create, instead, a zero food waste system.

INTO THE FUTURE. While the 27 solutions of the Roadmap are intended cut food waste by 20% over the next decade, there’s an even greater national and global goal to reduce food waste by 50% by 2030. To be a part of this, Cochran said:

  1. Commit. There are any number of efforts businesses can join, such as EPA’s Champions 2030, the Champions 12.3 coalition, and Consumer Goods Forum Resolution.
  2. Take action. Use the ReFED Roadmap to reduce food waste. Keep an eye out for the 2020 update which will further identify solutions to achieving the goals.
  3. Share. Manufactures can benefit from sharing information and best practices with ReFED, for which they will, in return, receive ReFED data, statistics, and cost/benefit analysis.
  4. Attend. Apply for an invitation to join other thought leaders, major food businesses and investors at the 2019 Food Waste Summit in October.

Food manufacturers have a promising start — producing only 2% of the food waste across the food chain. “That is evidence that many have become LEAN,” Cochran said. “They have enabled a lot of the start-up infrastructure to be built out, many of which are based on the premise that they find a byproduct. I encourage them to continue to work their way up the hierarchy.”

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