the United Nations Environment Program Food Waste Index found that more than 900 million tonnes of food is thrown away each year, with household food waste accounting for 60% of this total. Responsible for 24% of greenhouse gas emissions, the the global food system is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, making the amount of wasted food even harder to digest.
This pressing issue has not gone unnoticed, with multi-agency efforts to drastically reduce food waste across the world, many of which focus on best before and use by dates, with progressive companies taking the lead in trying to find a solution to a problem that will certainly not go away.
Making sense of date labels
One of the main areas to be resolved is consumer confusion regarding dates on products. The UK waste reduction charity, WRAP, has found that around 60% of UK household food waste, worth £6.7 billion, came from products that were not used “in time”. Worse still, he found that up to 30% of the food that was ‘discarded’ for being past its date probably didn’t need to be thrown away, instead wearing a ‘best before’, as opposed to a “use-by” date. Obviously, there is confusion over date labeling.
It’s not just in the UK either. In the USA, 30-40% of all American food is wasted every year, a figure that can be partly attributed to the myriad of labeling conventions at play in the United States, including “expiry”, “use by”, “best before”, “sold by”, “best if used by” , ” To infinity. And the European Commission estimates that up to 10% of the 88 million tons of food waste generated each year in the EU is related to date stamping.
Consumer education obviously has a role to play in reducing food waste. Raising awareness that best-before dates are not the same as best-before dates and implementing consistent labeling standards where possible are essential. The same goes for providing more information about fridge temperatures, for example, especially considering that even a fridge temperature increase of just 1°C can shave an entire day off the life of certain products. But, as we are already seeing, the industry can also take other proactive measures, paving the way to a marked reduction in food waste.
Smart shelves and dynamic dates
For example, some supermarkets are experimenting with smart shelves, which reduce the price of items in line with decreasing best-before and best-before dates. This technology has the potential to seep into the home, with smart refrigerators capable of alerting consumers to impending expiration dates. Along the same lines, the introduction of a dynamic shelf life for products, where a shelf life is adjusted according to the actual quality of the product, is a very attractive proposition for manufacturers, retailers and consumers.
And this is where food manufacturers, who are at the very heart of the food industry, can take the lead, making the most of the information and technology at their disposal. They can lead the way when it comes to optimizing product shelf life to make a significant difference to the staggering amount of food wasted daily.
There are countless variables that go into determining a product’s shelf life, including what it’s made of, how and when it’s made, how it will be treated on its way to the consumer, and , ultimately, how it will be treated once arrives with the consumer.
By evaluating all available information, it is up to manufacturers to determine use-by or best-before dates which, to mitigate potential health and safety risks, always tend to be conservative. This over-cautiousness, while understandable, clearly has the potential to contribute to the seemingly ever-increasing amounts of food wasted by consumers, a problem the right technology can help solve.
Data Driven Dates
When it comes to shelf life, one size really doesn’t fit all, especially with perishable products, and can also vary widely from batch to batch. Applying artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) capabilities can help manufacturers consider all the different variables at all stages of the farm-to-fork supply chain to formulate a dynamic shelf life for each product.
In practice, this involves monitoring the condition of ingredients and finished products, both upstream and downstream, examining storage and transport times and conditions before, during and after production, as well as the profiling the quality of raw ingredients and examining what will happen to the product once it reaches the retailer.
Internet of Things (IoT) devices are perfect for this approach, able to measure vital variables and feed this crucial information back into intelligent systems for analysis to determine optimal best-before or best-before dates, which are aligned with attributes. specific quality of an individual batch of products.
This granularity and visibility of information throughout the supply chain also brings additional benefits to manufacturers. The right systems can provide the depths of foresight needed to better inform planning and procurement decisions.
For example, an overview of ingredients to be expected can allow manufacturers to dynamically modify the recipe to compensate for any flaws in ingredient quality or characteristics. Likewise, it allows manufacturers to investigate alternative sources of ingredients if a particular supplier fails, or switch to another mode of transportation if current services are contributing to reduced shelf life.
Additionally, the use of such tactics can also have cost advantages. For example, although higher quality ingredients generally provide a longer shelf life, one must question the point of paying extra for an ingredient because it is stable longer if the final product itself is not will only have a limited shelf life – especially in an era of trying to minimize inventory where possible. Ultimately, this whole approach can optimize manufacturing operations, while contributing to broader efforts to significantly reduce food waste.
The right technology is key to putting food manufacturers at the heart of any effort to reduce food waste. Forward-thinking companies are already recognizing this, using the information and tools at their disposal, across the broader supply chain, to gain the insights needed to inform best practices for dynamically dating food products.
This approach paves the way for less food waste worldwide, representing a concerted effort by the food industry to find a solution to one of the most pressing challenges we all face today.