May 14, 2019

Food Spoilage is a Bigger Problem Than You Think (Part 1/2)

Food spoilage is a major issue in our economy today. When one thinks about food spoilage, they often think of how food goes bad in homes. It is indeed an issue. Nearly 150,000 tons of food is thrown away in households every day in the US alone.This could measure up to a third of the calories that Americans consume. Out of all types of food, fruit and vegetables are the most likely to be thrown away. While there are certainly things one can do to combat this in our own households, a bigger issue is arising. From farm to store, supply chains are struggling with a food waste issue as well, and it’s on a global scale.

In 2017, a study deduced that around 30% of food produced for people worldwide is lost at some point along the food supply chain. This is catastrophic, especially because the world’s population is expected to grow to around 9.1 billion people by 2050, and we will require a 70% increase in food availability.

In this two-part series, we'll be talking about what exactly food spoilage is and how supply chains can reduce the amount of waste that occurs in the transportation of various types of perishable goods.

Food spoilage: why is it a problem?

As I mentioned previously, food spoilage is a major issue because of the massive increase in food demand that we can expect in the oncoming decades. If we’re wasting so much food in our homes and through the supply chain process, we’ll never get to the 70% increase that the world will need.

But if we can eliminate food waste in the supply chain fully, we will only need a 40% increase in food production to meet that quota.

What is food spoilage?

Food spoilage is essentially the process in which a perishable food product becomes unsuitable or unsafe to ingest by a consumer.

There are serious consequences to food spoilage. When we think of spoiled food, we think of bacteria-ridden food that smells, looks, and taste wrongs. However, the micro organisms that can cause food-borne illnesses usually have no smell, flavour, or other detectable element. Even if a spoiled food appears to be fine, especially dried or packaged foods, it could actually be very unhealthy to consume.

Spoiled food consumption is dangerous because it often contains mycotoxins and microbial wastes. Because of this, visibly spoiled food is often destroyed and non-visibly spoiled food with a passed due date will be destroyed as well.

What causes food spoilage?

There are several causes of food spoilage, most of which are outside causes. Products often are packaged and stored incorrectly throughout the supply chain. Items that should be kept above or below a certain temperature at all phases of the product life cycle usually aren’t.

It’s important to remember that all harvested food begins to decompose the second they are harvested. This is due to:

  • Bacteria
  • Mold
  • Yeast
  • Moisture
  • Temperature reactions
  • Chemical reactions
  • Air
  • Light
  • Insects
  • Rodents
  • Parasites
  • Physical damage
  • Time
  • Other enzymes
  • Oxidation
  • Other microorganisms

Since produce begins to decompose immediately, time is definitely not on our side. Food must be harvested, packed up, shipped via trucks or other modes of transportation, and stocked in stores as quickly as possible. Depending on the location of the produce and the location of where it will be stocked for consumption, the supply chain timeline could be up to a week after harvest.

Common preventative measures for reducing food spoilage in the supply chain includes keeping perishable goods in conditions that delay decomposition. This is usually done by adding chemical preservatives to products, drying the products out, hydrostatic pressure, or keeping the products in extremely cold temperatures (refrigeration) to temporarily halt decomposition.

These measures usually work. However, we’re still losing a massive amount of food in the supply chain because those measures aren’t being properly tracked, managed, and controlled.

What can we do about food waste?

On a personal level, we can start in our homes by consuming the produce that we purchase before it can spoil. Since most of the food we buy isn't eaten right away, correct storing is the alpha and the omega in making sure it lasts as long as possible. In the event that our food is spoiled, composting the waste instead of throwing it away will be beneficial. We can also reduce food waste by only purchasing what we know we need, rather than an abundance of food that could go bad.

Outside of that, a lot of the power is in the hands of major corporations, namely supermarket chains that control the food supply chain from farm to transportation to stocking. This could possibly be solved by having more strict rules and regulations in place globally, including rules around how food is transported. However, this could also be ineffective and essentially a bandaid on a larger issue: the management of the supply chain is often poor, and solutions must be used to improve management.

In 2017, Winnow interviewed Tristram Stuart, a well-known activist, author, and founder of the environmental campaigning organization Feedback, who has been trying to spread awareness on food waste for several years. On the subject of food waste in the supply chain, Stuart had this to say:

“Whether voluntarily or via regulations, it does seem that people have woken up to the problem [of supply chain food waste], largely thanks to the work of Feedback. The scale of food waste being caused in the supply chain by very powerful supermarkets is unacceptable. There is a need to regulate that.  This is one policy area where myself and Feedback are particularly interested in.”

While Stuart’s organization has certainly helped spread awareness about the food waste issue, there seems to be problems around finding a solution.

Did you like this post? In part two of our series, we’ll explore how data management and technology can be an effective way to significantly reduce food waste in the supply chain by tackling the real issue at the core of this problem: poor monitoring and management. Come back next week to read the post, and keep an eye on our social media! In the meantime, why not check out our blog posts Big Data in Supply Chains, Three Reasons Data Logging is Vital for Your Pharma Company and What is Data Logging?

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