By Yessenia Balcazar
Among the topics that were covered in my most recent courses I have taken as a sustainability studies major at Roosevelt University, I found that the topic of food waste, particularly the sources of food waste, to be simultaneously fascinating and dismaying. I was especially struck by one very specific cause of food waste that often gets overlooked by the public: the relationship between retailers and food supply policies.
More specifically, current retail food supply policies regarding aesthetic standards for foods and the expectation that product displays be consistently stocked both promote inefficiency in the food supply system that leads to food waste. Approximately 1.4 billion tons of food produced globally for human consumption is going to waste annually (Finn, 2014). In developed countries, 40% of this food waste comes from retail and consumption alone (ibid). The estimated value of food loss equates to $680 billion dollars in retail prices (Gosh et al., 2015). Food waste is a social, environmental, and economic crisis.
As it stands, current retail policies regarding food supply consist of a multitude of aesthetic standards and the requirement of having fresh, fully stocked perishables sections at all times of the day (Gunders, 2012). Blemished or disfigured food products are deemed unsuitable for supermarket retail and there are specific regulations set in place by supermarket policies that deem what are acceptable aesthetic standards (Ghosh et al, 2015). In order for food products to make it from the farm and into the food retailing system, they must match the specific measurements and coloration the policy requires (ibid). Current supermarket policy also mandates that food displays be fully stocked at all times of the day, from opening to closing.
Fortunately, all is hope is not lost. There are a multitude of retail food policy reforms that can restore efficiency in our food supply. One potential policy that can be implemented to combat the issue of food waste would be a requirement that grocery stores have a separate bin or section for perishables that did not meet cosmetic standards and sell them at a discounted price.Perishables that are overripe or near their expiration date can also be included. Not only does this work to minimize food waste, but it can also result in increased profits. While it has been argued that a possible consequence is that these sections can deter potential customers, research shows that such bins actually increase profits.
A popular grocery store in Berkley, California has implemented this idea. They offer damaged or nearly expired produce on their bargain shelf for 99 cents, and make approximately $1,500 in profits from this shelf every day (Gunders, 2012). As opposed to the typical experience of losing profits from tossing out safe to eat perishables, the implementation of this policy allows supermarkets to not only recover these losses, but actually maximize their profits over time.
A second policy option to consider would be to mandate the donation of the food that is deemed unsalable to those in need. In 2011, more than 50 million Americans lived in food insecure households (Finn, 2014). Not only would this work to diminish the issue of food waste due to current policies, but it would also work toward resolving the issue of hunger and food insecurity.
There is, however, a concern surrounding legal obligations if said donated food ends up being unsafe to the consumer in any way. Donors do not want to run the risk of a lawsuit should this end up being the case. Fortunately, this is not actually possible under the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by former President Bill Clinton in 1996 (Ghosh, et. al., 2015). The Good Samaritan Act allows donors to donate food that does not meet qualifications to be sold in supermarkets, but is still otherwise safe for consumption, to various charities while being free from any legal obligations.
A final option to consider would be to eliminate cosmetic standards and focus more heavily on the implementation of standards that truly correspond to food safety. This option would also incorporate a policy that mandates less full displays and overstocking. This works to remediate both pathways by which supermarkets are losing a great amount of profits and contributing to food waste. Similar to the evidence that supports that consumers are willing to buy cosmetically imperfect perishables, they are also typically unperturbed by shelves and displays that are not heavily stocked.
A grocery chain called Stop and Shop/Giant Landover conducted a thorough analysis of freshness and customer purchases in all of their perishable departments (cited in Gunders, 2012). In their analysis they found that current overstocking practices led to spoilage on the shelf, and thus, increased customer dissatisfaction. The results showed that customers did not even notice a reduction in choice or the less full displays, and customer satisfaction actually increased seeing as there was a reduction in spoilage on the displays, and produce was, on average, actually three days fresher than before (Gunders, 2012). Stop and Shop/Giant Landover was able to save an estimated annual $100 million by removing full stock displays and unnecessary whole-stock keeping units. Given this information, it would be a very efficient decision to implement this sort of policy into supermarkets to not only divert food waste from landfills, but also to save profits and increase consumer satisfaction.
The implementation of each of these policies promotes an increase in profits through the implementation of bargain bins, the highest possible decrease in economic loss, food loss, and food waste by eliminating cosmetic standards and overstocking, and combating the issue of hunger through the donation of perishables.
Yessenia Balcazar is a senior Sustainability Studies major at Roosevelt University, which she is also president of the student environmental organization, RU Green.