• Jonathan Bloom writes about why we waste food, why it matters and what we can do about it. This is his blog.

Something To Shoot For: US Sets Food Waste Reduction Goal

Today, the USDA and EPA joined forces with charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, food companies and local governments to set the first ever national food waste reduction goal. For sure, it’s a happy day in the land of wasted food. Yet my initial elation is now tempered with a few reservations.

The Great: It’s a whopper! The goal is a 50 percent reduction of wasted food by 2030. I remember when it was thrilling to have the Secretary of Ag merely mention food waste. Now he’s setting an ambitious reduction goal!

The Bad: There are no real plans or penalties. Accordingly, this goal will succeed or fail based on whether or not the food industry opts in. Draw your own conclusions there, but know that said industry is quite attuned to consumer demand. So make your opinions known early and often!

The Ugly? The timing of the announcement feels a little fishy. In a week, world leaders will descend on the UN General Assembly in New York to finalize the Sustainable Development Goals, a fact mentioned in the first paragraph(!) of the USDA press release. Obama Administration representatives can now trumpet its commitment to reducing food waste without having made any real commitments.

To sum up my thoughts on today’s mostly very happy day, here’s my quick #HaikuHotTake:™

Broad coalition

A noble, ambitious goal

But where are the teeth?

[Editor's Note: I changed 'Good' to 'Great' to properly reflect the scale of the announcement.]

September 16, 2015 | Posted in Campaigns, Stats | Comments closed

Q&A: Scanning Away Food Waste?

Chances are you encounter radio frequency identification (RFID) technology quite often. You’re doing so when you use a proximity card at work or a hotel, track a package, check out library books, or become a scannable human. Within the food industry, RFID tags track food shipments’ progress at the pallet and truck level.

The global packaging company Avery Dennison is now working to bring that technology to supermarket shelves. Avery Dennison recently claimed that RFID tags could minimize retail food waste by 20 percent, which would yield savings of US$22 billion globally. James Stafford, Global Head of RFID Development, answered some questions on a technology that may just become embedded in your life in the near future.

Jonathan Bloom (JB): You’re now testing RFID technology with food retailers. What insights have you gleaned from the real world application of the technology? Any surprises thus far?

James Stafford (JS): Our key insight is that with fast-moving short life foods, there is very little opportunity to check the accuracy of deliveries and consistency of sell-by dates throughout the chain. RFID offers the opportunity to get accurate information at very fast read rates.

JB: Avery Dennison has claimed that RFID tags can reduce food waste by 20 percent. In plain language, how can tags achieve that reduction and what is behind that estimate?

JS: RFID gives retailers the opportunity to check that they have the right products, the right quantities and most importantly, the right dates, at every stage of the chain, at minimum labor costs. This visibility of accurate data will enable better management of the process and avoids products ending up as expensive waste, which can often be as high as 10 percent of the sales value of the turnover at a retail location.

Early stage adopters will likely be retailers managing high volumes of refrigerated, perishable, short shelf life foods. These retailers have the constant challenge of managing availability of fresh products for their customers, while avoiding excessive quantities of products going past their sell-by date and ending up as waste.

This challenge is compounded by multiple deliveries all with different dates that need to be accurately date-rotated in distribution centers and in-store. At the moment, retailers have few tools to help with this process, and have to rely on visual inspection and the workforce. This inevitably means that a compromise has to be made between levels of checking and labor costs in a high-volume area.

We believe that with greater visibility of potential waste situations through RFID scanning, promotional action can be taken to ensure food is sold to consumers rather than ending up as waste. If we couple this with process and control improvements as a result of identifying errors in picking, distribution, stock rotation, and expected shelf life, we consider that about a 20 percent reduction in overall food waste is a realistic target.

JB: At present, food-borne illness recalls prompt vast amounts of healthy food to be discarded. How useful would RFID tracking be when it comes to avoiding unnecessary waste here? And are those potential savings included in the 20 percent or would they be additional?

JS: We have insufficient information to comment on this area, but any potential savings would be in addition to the 20 percent mentioned above.

JB: Cost has long been the main barrier for RFID adoption in the low-margin supermarket industry. What is the per-unit cost now and what price point would you need to reach to realize widespread adoption?  Do you have any way to compare the per-unit price to the savings from avoided food waste?

JS: Unfortunately, we do not disclose pricing. We recognize that foods are extremely price sensitive, and understand that RFID deployment decisions will always be made as a result of a strong business case that provides a sound ROI (return on investment). However, food waste has a significant impact on food margins, and its potential reduction through RFID creates an opportunity to offset costs through margin improvement.

JB: Testing thus far has focused on the more expensive items like meats and seafood. Can you imagine a day when RFID tags would be used with all food products or would it ultimately be at pallet or carton level with some food items?

JS: We think the major interest in the near term will be on short-shelf-life foods. More expensive items will justify the cost of item level tagging, but cheaper items such as dairy and produce also need an RFID solution that delivers visibility throughout the chain. Certain retailers in Europe are already tagging returnable transit trays or totes, and we are currently involved in pilots that involve tagging of returnable trays and disposable cartons.

While this does not offer quite the granularity of data provided by item-level tagging, it is a viable intermediate step, which also offers further benefits of enhancing productivity in the distribution chain by speeding up receipt and dispatch processes.

JB: RFID-tagged grocery products will have other benefits, too, right? Could they help consumers trace the origin of food items?

JS: At the moment, consumers don’t have the technology in their phones to read the information on the type of RFID tags used, but of course, this could change in the future. RFID tagging offers the opportunity to trace products from farm to fork. From the individual animal, or fishing boat or fruit orchard right through to the consumer packaging.  How much of that information is useful to consumers, or conversely a distraction, remains to be seen, but the potential is there.

JB: If RFID tags are adopted widely, will grocery aisles become radio wave gauntlets?

JS: People’s exposure to radio waves is strictly controlled by government regulations in all parts of the world, and the RFID industry operates safely within these regulations. It is worth pointing out that the RFID tags used on consumer items are completely passive, contain no batteries, and emit no radio waves themselves, until exposed to radio waves from an RFID reader. Only when exposed to such a reader are they able to transmit a small part of the energy received as a weak radio transmission and only for a very short period of time.

JB: Are there previous supermarket advances to which you’d compare RFID tags? And where in the process of adoption are we?

JS: The obvious answer is the barcode, which started in the USA in 1974 and reached the UK in 1978. However, widespread adoption took another 15 years, and there were many people at that time that doubted that the technology would catch on in retail. Reliable equipment had to be developed and coding standards universally agreed.

Today RFID is in a similar position to early barcodes, but with the advantage that the technology is reliable, standards established, and prices for equipment and tags have fallen. The unique information within an RFID tag, which is far more detailed than the data contained in a barcode, will create new opportunities to improve inventory productivity, margins, store operations execution, and the overall customer experience. The old compromise between speed and accuracy disappears. Now retailers can get real-time information on inventory at a speed that was impossible in the past. We believe this will create a paradigm shift in the management of fast-moving consumer goods, such as foods.

JB: When might the first RFID tags hit grocery stores in the US?

JS: Hopefully you won’t have to wait too long! We expect to see some RFID pilots in the U.S. in the first half of 2016. And I would expect this to be happening at least at carton or distribution unit level by 2017.

September 15, 2015 | Posted in Q & A, Supermarket, Technology | Comments closed

John Oliver Hates Food Waste (and Chard)

Sunday night, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver tackled food waste. For fans of the comedian and the show, that is a wonderful thing. For first-timers, know that there is plenty of explicit language.

Last Week Tonight sure does a nice job of tricking us into learning. Their treatment of food waste did not disappoint. What began with an indictment of America’s predilection for all-you-can-eat everything transitioned into a full examination of the absurdity of wasting 40 percent of our food supply in the face of 50 million food-insecure Americans. 

I was heartened that the story included the environmental impact of food waste, including methane (that’s my voice in the clip). Same goes for their mention of the water squandered to create food not used, especially in light of  the ongoing drought.

Meanwhile, I’m glad that Oliver illustrated the hollowness of date labels (as things that look official but can be ignored, like a kid playing dress up in a cop outfit). And I loved that he debunked the myth that food donors can be sued when people get sick, exposing it as a false fear (like the swimming cramp after eating).

The piece gave some well-needed publicity to the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act. Oliver voicing the main provision of that law was both a national service and a personal thrill. Meanwhile, Oliver exposed how the Senate hindered future food donations by turning the America Gives More Act (HR 644) into a zombie bill, nixing permanent tax incentives to small businesses and farms who donate food.

A few phrases really went down smoothly: “Farm to Not-a-Table,” “Wining and Dining raccoons,” and “produce body shaming,” (which reminds me of my attempt to promote wider acceptability with #realfoodhascurves). I also liked how Oliver dismissed the lawsuit myth by mocking the idea of ‘all those high-powered lawyers representing the hungry.’

The only thing missing was a call to action, as the show’s main stories often include. But as one of the show’s researchers told me, simply shedding light on food waste and its triple costs (ethical, economic, and environmental) will likely prompt many viewers to examine their own habits. Or at least never eat at Carl’s Jr./Hardees again. Maybe even both!

One statistical note: The finding that the US fills 730 stadiums with food waste annually stems from my finding on the daily filling of the Rose Bowl. It’s basically that we fill the Rose Bowl two times every day. When I was doing my original research in 2009, I found that we almost filled that stadium twice every day. It was about 197 percent per day, so I said we filled the Rose Bowl once a day to give a conservative estimate. In the intervening years, the growing population and steady waste rates combine to make that two times per day estimate solid.

July 21, 2015 | Posted in General | Comments closed

Letter Rip!

Now that the summer produce season is in full swing…

We  really need your help in creating an alphabet out of fruit and vegetables. Just to give you a sense, here are some previous examples. Once we get all the letters, we’ll create an awesome alphabet poster.

So please tweet your letter-like garden and market oddities to @WastedFood and @PDXFoodRecovery with the hashtag #alphabetproduce. Send whatever you come across, but you’ll be our hero if you find a fruit or vegetable that resembles an H or X!

July 20, 2015 | Posted in Alphabet Produce | Comments closed

Watching the 5,000

Carolina Dining Services recently published this recap of their fabulous Feeding the 5,000 event at UNC. Have a look–it’s four minutes well spent. Experience the day and all the work that went into it.

June 24, 2015 | Posted in College, Institutional, Repurposing | Comments closed

Survey Says…

There has been plenty of attention on wasted food in America recently, but very few assessments of how Americans feel about the topic. That changed yesterday with the publishing of the first national consumer survey on wasted food in the US.

There’s an abundance of findings to be gleaned from the Johns Hopkins report, which surveyed 1,000-people. Let’s start with the good news: Americans have a decent sense that we waste a whole lot of food. A sizable portion (45 percent) of respondents knew that 40 percent of American food is wasted.

Even better, participants are keen to do something about the problem, said study leader Roni Neff, PhD. “Americans are ready to address wasted food. They are relatively aware, concerned, and want to do more,” Neff said. “43 percent said it would be easy to reduce the amount of food their household wastes. So we have a real opportunity to build on that interest.”

It’s worth noting, though, that such survey talk is cheap (and prone to exaggeration). Anyone can underestimate their wasteful habits or pledge change to minimize wasted food. The report did not seek to correlate words and deeds.

While Americans are aware of food waste in general, they don’t think they are particularly wasteful. A hefty 73 percent of respondents felt that they waste less than the average American. I’m no mathematician, but I’m pretty sure that’s not statistically possible.

When it comes to motivations for reducing food waste “saving money” and “setting an example for children” were the two leading factors. Much less of a motivator: “greenhouse gases, energy, and water,” which came in dead last, after choices like “managing household efficiently” and “guilt about waste in general.” As Neff noted, we now know that the environmental impact of food waste is a weak spot in public awareness.

The survey also asked what changes supermarkets and restaurants could make to help them minimize wasted waste (Listen up, Food Waste Reduction Alliance). Packaging topped respondents’ minds, with “more resealable packages” and “more variety in product sizes” the top two responses for retailers. As for helpful restaurant changes, the runaway winners were “offer half portions” (paging Dr. Halfsies) and “routinely offer containers for leftovers.”

One somewhat disturbing finding was that composting can undercut the food waste reduction. Of respondents who compost, 41 percent said wasting food doesn’t bother them because they compost. Here’s proof that composting can be a hindrance to reducing wasted food, a widely accepted higher priority.  “I expected this to be an issue but did not expect this magnitude of a response,” Neff said. “This finding has real implications for composting programs and how they communicate with participants.”

But let’s close on a positive note: when it comes to food waste, we’re all in this together. Neff’s research found that attitudes and stated behavior around wasted food remained steady across gender, race, generation, income and educational lines. So in effect, we’re one nation, indivisible, with food waste progress needed for all.

June 11, 2015 | Posted in Composting, Household, Restaurant, Stats, Supermarket | Comments closed

But How Do You *Feel* About It?

How the heck do Americans feel about all of this wasted food? Until now, we didn’t really know. Fortunately, researchers at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health asked that question (and many more) in the first nationally representative consumer survey focused on wasted food in America.

Today marks the long-anticipated (at least in this neck of the woods) release date for the study, led by Roni Neff, PhD. The survey had some surprising findings, and I’ll have a full write up tomorrow. In the meantime, here are a few highlights:

  • Americans don’t think they’re particularly wasteful. 73 percent of respondents felt that they waste less than the average American. I’m no mathematician, but I’m pretty sure that’s not statistically possible.
  • Saving money is by far the top motivation for avoiding waste.
  • By contrast, the environmental impact of food waste is the least valued motivation.
  • Composting can undercut the food waste reduction. 41 percent of respondents who composted said wasting food doesn’t bother them.
  • We’re all in this together–attitudes and stated behavior around wasted food remained steady across gender, age, income and education.
June 10, 2015 | Posted in Household, Stats | Comments closed

It’s Your Day, Environment!

Today is World Environment Day. So buy the environment a drink. Or better yet, don’t waste any food.

I’m not a huge fan of these kinds of days–except for National Ice Cream Day (July 19), of course–but they do force us to take stock. And for me, that means reflecting on the significant environmental impact of wasted food. Both in the terms of the energy, water and land used in vain to create food that is squandered and the methane emissions from food being landfilled. Given all of that, wasted food has a rather large carbon footprint. How large? Well…

image courtesy of Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition

Thanks for that, Barilla and for your Milan Protocol, pushing to halve global food waste by 2020. Also, I love how the garbage bag in the above graphic represents the 1/3 of food wasted globally, but the Foodwasteland flag needs a little work.

Back to the matter at hand, how many people know about wasted food’s carbon footprint? And how many of those people care? A soon-to-be-released survey out of Johns Hopkins (check back here Wednesday for more on it) gauged US consumer attitudes and awareness on food waste issues. In response to the question ‘what motivates you to reduce food discards,’ the ‘greenhouse gases, energy and water’ choice came in dead last.

Only about 40 percent of respondents found that environmental motivation to be a ‘very important’ or ‘important’ reason to avoid wasting food. It finished beneath these choices:

  • Saving money
  • Setting an example for children
  • Managing household efficiently
  • Thinking about hungry people
  • Guilt about waste in general
  • Making a difference through my actions
  • Regret about time/money spent

And this is where our work lies. On #WED2016, will the environmental factors rank higher? Let’s hope so. Let’s make it so.

June 5, 2015 | Posted in Environment | Comments closed

Not-So-Stale Ideas for Bread

Got stale bread? You probably will at some point. Courtesy of Sustainable America, here are 10 helpful tips on how to use your old bread.

June 3, 2015 | Posted in Household, Infographic, Repurposing | Comments closed

‘Every Bit of the Animal’ — A Maria Finn Q&A

Maria Finn is an author, journalist and artist. While she was an Autodesk Artist in Residence in late 2014, she set out to change our perception of food and food waste. Following an evening spent shucking oysters, she found herself faced with a mountain of shells. Instead of discarding them, she created beautiful oyster shell tiles that now line the backsplash of her kitchen.

Her philosophy of ‘waste not, want not,’ extends to her work foraging and wildcrafting in the San Francisco Bay and holistic food preparation using every bit of the animal. Finn recently completed a novel, “Sea Legs & Fish Nets” based loosely on her experience working on an all-female fishing boat in Alaska and has written five books, including “The Whole Fish” and “Hold Me Tight and Tango Me Home.” She writes for FERN and other outlets.

How did you get the idea to make tiles out of oyster shells? Had you seen other interesting uses for oyster shells?

I have used oyster shell tiles in my container garden; I use them as mulch that holds in moisture, looks good, and has a slow release fertilizer for Mediterranean plants. I’ve also used them ground up in the medium in my wall hanging indoor mushroom boxes. But I think the shells are so beautiful. To me, this is part of the pleasure of opening and eating oysters. I love their fractal texture and mother of pearl glimmer. For the tiles, I started off using ground up oyster shell with the cement, then saved the flattest pieces, or shattered them for the top of the tile. I worried about the strength with the ground up oyster shells, as handmade tiles are a lot of work, so I then went with just cement and the oysters for finishing them.

I hope to start a native oyster colony on the hull of my houseboat. Not so much to eat, but because each oyster cleans 50 gallons of water a day. And their colonies are so beautiful. Mussels are also great filters, and I just learned that the pace at which they open indicates the water quality/pollution in a bay. So I’m talking with some people at Autodesk about a future project of hooking up an LED light sculpture that connects to the mussels/oysters on my houseboat and the lights will indicate the bay’s water quality.

I see your work through the lens of using the whole animal or plant, often called ‘tail-to-snout’ eating. How much does avoiding waste play into your art, both practically and philosophically?

I’m author of the TED book, The Whole Fish: How Adventurous Eating of Seafood Will Make You Happier, Healthier and Help Save the Ocean. Much of this was inspired by the two years I worked monitoring the salmon run on the Yukon Delta for the Alaska Department of Fish & Game. I spent a lot of time with Yupik women at their fish drying camps. They use every part of the salmon—even turn the male’s milt into a sort of Popsicle dipped in seal oil. Traditionally, they make lamps, bags, and other items out of salmon skin. I met the artist Emily Johnson at the Headlands Center for the Arts. She is Yupik, from Alaska, and also does this.

While an Artist-In-Residence (AIR) at Autodesk, I wrote an Instructables post on how to catch a salmon, and then break down a whole salmon. I created recipes on using the skin, head, bones, trim and every part of it—including salmon SPAM from the collar and belly. At the time, I was also making items for the renovation of my houseboat, so I thought I’d give the salmon skin lamp a try. Another artist there, Jennifer Berry, has been doing an art project on road kill, and is an experienced leather tanner. Eric Forman, a fellow AIR, was making light boxes. I collaborated with those two, and now have a very modern version of the Yupik salmon skin lamp. One of my neighbors is so excited by my salmon lamp; we are going to make more this salmon season. Hoping we catch them.

Read More »

May 18, 2015 | Posted in Environment, Seafood | Comments closed
  • Buy the Book

    CBA Winner Badge