“Big Foods” Cosmetic Standards causing more food waste

Everyone points to consumers as the common cause of food waste. Food, they say, is so cheap no one thinks twice about tossing a lot of it in the trash bin. But the numbers in a new study tells a different story. A huge amount of waste happens at the farm level and the power-player supermarkets are to blame.

A study conducted by UK food and environment charity, Feedback, over the past 2 years reveals the number one supermarket behavior at the root of massive food waste on the farm is none other than cosmetic standards. So, on top of having to fill wholesale orders with blemish-free produce that will not age on the shelf, farmers also have to grow it all the same size and shape.

food waste

Big Supermarkets control 85% of the UK Market

While consumers want high nutritional value, food retailers want something akin to Legos. All the same shape, size, color, sugar content, and ripeness. If it’s not, the buyers cancel their orders. Which in turn causes food waste, especially with the more readily perishable fruits and vegetables.

Sometimes, cosmetic inferiority is an excuse used to cover up other retailer issues. Like it’s raining a lot this week, so no one is buying strawberries. As absurd as that sounds, imagine planting enough strawberries to fulfill demands for a huge supermarket chain only to have the order canceled midway through delivery. The amount of food waste that causes at farm level is not insignificant.

Feedback found that in the UK alone, buyers refuse up to 37,000 tonnes of food waste annually. That, says the report, typically amounts to as much as 16% of the food grown in the UK. It’s enough to feed the entire population of a large city for a year. At least the 5-a-day portions of fruit and veg for 250,000 people. Small potatoes compared to US food waste at a farm level. It tallies up to a whopping 10.1 million tons a year, according to numbers reported by ReFED in 2016. Yes, it’s a larger country with a lot more produce acreage. But cosmetic specifications are still a considerable root cause of waste volume.

Food wasteIt’s not like the farm can simply sell it to another wholesaler.  In fact, often they have no recourse other than turn the harvest into food waste. It’s not the farmers who send mountains of rotting food to the dump, but retailers. At least the farmer can use the rejected crop to replenish organic matter in his soil. A far better end to the food they cannot sell than it rotting in piles somewhere else.

Yes, the power-player supermarkets rejects could feed the hungry. Better that than feeding the food waste mountain. However, first, someone must pick it, pack it, and distribute it. A process that is never free, and must happen in a very short window of time. Try finding an army of pickers to drop everything at a moment’s notice ready and willing to run to the rescue. That only happens in movies.

There are more reasons that big supermarkets drive food waste besides superficial and fictitious rejection. Farmers who supply big retailers and small store buying groups have to grow more than they purchase. You never want to tell the buyers you’re out of stock when they come calling. That will forever remove you from the supply chain. One organic farmer reports he routinely over planted by a third every year. Mow it down and plow it in is way better than out of business.

Supermarkets don’t do seasonal food. Sun blocker, holiday geegaws, and deicers are a different story. But fruits and vegetables know no season when you’ve got world trade. Supermarket buyers have little concern when UK farmers are overrun with whatever is ripe at the moment. Their failure to market local, seasonal produce contributes to food waste, especially when the weather allows for a bumper crop.

Food wasteNot a good situation for growers, because glut decreases already slim farm margins. Which is why, in the US, marketing boards control supply by ordering food waste at the farm level. They actually send investigators out for proof that the farmer has indeed destroyed the harvest. It cannot enter the market in any way.

Unlike other business contracts, it seems produce buyers can cancel or change their orders without forewarning. Pretty crazy, considering it’s custom grown according to their order from the get-go. This is just another significant food waste driver in the UK. And if it’s happening there, it’s quite likely happening in other parts of the world too. After all, power-player supermarkets often have international operations.  In the UK, they control 86% of the market. And in the US? Twenty retailers claim over 66% of food dollars.

Not only do they eat each other through acquisition, but the truly big ones have stores in multiple countries. Which leads right into the fifth biggest reason Feedback found that supermarkets are major food waste instigators. Consolidation means farmers have fewer options when it comes to selling what they produce. They either conduct business in the manner power-player supermarkets demand or find another career path. Which means… they’ll just find someone else to assist building food waste mountain into perpetuity. As a result, many farmers operate in fear of losing their contract.

You can read the entire Feedback report here. The organization reclaims rejected harvests to feed those in need. The Independent has some interesting input in their story. And in the US, Wisconsin is currently working on putting together Harvest To Hope legislation to revert harvests destined for food waste into a food bank supply chain. If signed into law, they’ll be joining Minnesota and Ohio with similar programs in place. Three out of fifty is a  start in the right direction. Now we just need an army of such organizations to rescue the hundreds of thousands of tons of rejected harvests. Not just in the UK, or the US, but the world over.

Images courtesy of USDA, Karen Roe, rawdonfoxACK 1974Nick Saltmarsh, and Paul Townsend  (respectively).

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Tammy Clayton

Contributing Writer at Garden Culture Magazine

Tammy has been immersed in the world of plants and growing since her first job as an assistant weeder at the tender age of 8. Heavily influenced by a former life as a landscape designer and nursery owner, she swears good looking plants follow her home.