The commercial food industry is looking to technical innovation and online platforms to reduce waste, reports Samantha Lyster

For consumers the issue of food waste is on the table more than ever, as media coverage and campaigns raise the profile of how much produce is put into bins rather than mouths.

But less attention is paid to waste in the commercial sector. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN estimates that up to half the world’s root crops, fruit and vegetables are lost to wastage before they reach the shops. And in the UK alone more than 600,000 tonnes of food a year is sent to landfill in the UK food manufacturing industry, according to Defra. The causes are many, ranging from rejected loads to spoiling in storage and incorrect labelling. In recent years, the food industry has stepped up its efforts to address the problem, and it is increasingly looking to technology to assist.

Rotten fruit

One area of food waste that slips below the radar is rejected loads, such as shipments of imported fresh produce that are judged to have deteriorated during the journey. Normally, when loads arrive at ports an assessor manually takes samples at random from a few boxes. The decision on whether to keep the load or return it to the producer rests on that process. Should the assessor be unfortunate enough to pick from a particularly bad box in an otherwise sound shipment, the entire load could be rejected.

Wageningen University Food & Biobased Research in Holland has developed an automated quality checking system that is a more precise and time-efficient way to carry out the task, and results in less food waste. Rick van de Zedde, a senior researcher and business developer for computer vision at the university, says the technology already exists in high-speed sorting systems, but that the team at Wageningen, working under the project title GreenCHAINge, has adapted it to the task of measuring the quality status of produce.

For fruit, the system determines its quality by testing the chemical components, such as the dry matter content and sweetness. It can replicate everything a human can, including gently squeezing the fruit to test firmness. But instead of taking just a few samples, the system can scan and assess hundreds of crates within an hour. This way an importer has a much wider and in-depth picture on which to base the decision whether to accept or reject a shipment.

The system is still at the trial stage with some traders, including Total Produce BV and Hillfresh, but van de Zedde says there is huge potential for reducing food waste, especially with exotic produce.

Future food

Last year UK waste body Wrap published its Food Futures report that gave an overview of the global food industry. As part of its research, the waste and recycling organisation estimated that much of the UK’s annual £17bn bill for food waste could be prevented through changes in business and consumer behaviour, and that technological solutions would be essential to supporting such change, and in some cases negating the need for it.

This includes ensuring there is more efficient production of food through better data gathering. Already large commercial farms use drones and unmanned aerial vehicles to collect data on crop damage and yield potential.

With the cost of such technology declining each year, Wrap suggests that use of this type of equipment for precision agriculture will become more widely available, even to small farm operations.

‘The growth in smart technology is driving a revolution in how the entire food system operates, from a better understanding of land resources to automated factories and kitchens,” says Wrap spokesperson Kirsty Warren. ‘Data-enabled technology is becoming cheaper and more accessible all the time, but the food system has yet to fully capitalise on the benefits these technologies can unlock.

‘Over the next ten years these benefits will be explored as companies, households and policymakers seek to make better use of data. Those organisations that have the capabilities to realise this potential will be better placed to respond to the challenges of tomorrow.’

Warren adds that more could be done, pointing out that Innovate UK and the UK Research Councils are directing funding into this area. ‘Prerequisites for harnessing the power of technology are an awareness that individual businesses or households are creating food waste that could be prevented and an understanding of how to make best use of the technology,’ she says.

‘There is huge potential for technology, but communications to raise awareness and encourage us all to get the best out of innovations in products, packaging and labelling must progress in parallel.’

What is on the tin

Labelling is an area that is often overlooked as a source of food waste. The food and drink industry is highly regulated, and much of the data required for traceability is retrieved through barcodes. Food processing environments can be harsh, with barcode printers operating in extreme temperatures that can cause them to jam or fail.

A printer that issues faulty barcodes with incorrect information can have an impact on the supply chain, especially for perishable goods. Supermarkets will take the cheaper option and condemn the food rather than return it to a supplier for re-labelling.

Printer firm Datatrade has developed a device that provides quality control for barcode printers. Director Peter Laplanche says the online data validation system, or ODV, analyses the information on each label to ensure the linear codes fall well within the symbology specifications. ‘If the label doesn’t meet the spec, the ODV uses its datastream analysis to overstrike the bad label and print a good replacement,’ he says.

‘It delivers 100% scannable barcodes to production areas every time. There’s no costly human intervention in the validation process and [it] ensures that all barcode delivery labels are legible, thus avoiding unnecessary costs of duplicate transportation. The cost saving and minimal food waste benefits of ODV are a real advantage and far more significant for perishable goods like dairy, meat, fish and fresh produce.’

Supply management

Perishable goods are clearly a significant source of food waste, and one of the biggest challenges for suppliers is changes in demand. Supermarket buyers may decide to drop a product, leaving the source with an over-supply.

The costs of storage are often too high to justify for an industry where margins are small. Therefore, it is cheaper to send the produce to landfill. This has given rise to a new online platform called Takestock that acts like a storefront for such produce, as well as surplus dry goods. If a grower or trader has surplus product, they sign up to the free system. Once registered, they can list items, uploading photos and information. The seller stipulates the minimum quantity they wish to sell and declares the price they want per unit. The seller is notified of an offer and they can decline, accept or counter-bid.

Takestock chief executive and co-founder Campbell Murray says buyers range from the catering and restaurant trade to soup, jam and chutney makers and juice bars. More than 1,000 companies have registered for the service, which has 26,000 unique users. ‘We set up Takestock because two of my co-founders have food industry businesses and they saw a lot of good food go to landfill,’ says Murray. ‘When asked why the prevailing answer was that there was no easy way to reach buyers. The problem sounded to us like it could be solved by an efficient market online and we are still building out on that hypothesis.’

Murray claims that surplus food is worth around £1bn in the UK and, although the food industry is making strides in reducing waste, it has far to go.

‘The 2015 Courtauld agreement had most of its impact in the first five years of the ten-year programme and food waste halved, [but then] plateaued,’ he says. ‘It’s all about effort and reward. Many large companies we work with, such as Unilever, M&S and Waitrose, are actively addressing this. I don’t just mean as a marketing pitch; they have integrated [this] into supply chain standards, and management bonuses. So, it’s changing but more can be done.’

Firms signing up to the Courtald 2025, the most recent scheme, pledge to cut the waste and greenhouse gas emissions associated with their production of food and drink by at least one-fifth per person in ten years.

At source

The ideal, of course, is to manage waste at source. In the catering and restaurant industry, discussions continue on best practice to prevent food being binned.

One strategy is to keep track of how much is thrown away, which can help to establish waste reduction processes. The challenge lies in keeping count in a highly pressured, fast-turnaround environment.

This is where the Winnow system comes in. It is an electronic scale that weighs waste as it is thrown into the bin, making it easier to monitor volumes. The technology is now used in commercial kitchens in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Global catering company ESS rolled out the system to three sites in the UK in February 2015. The company estimates food waste so far to be down by 70% by value and 46.5 tonnes by weight, providing significant financial savings and a lower environmental impact.

It is to be expected that, in the developed food industries of western Europe and North America, technology will play a part in combating waste. However, Asia and Africa are also turning to tech to eliminate waste in food production and manufacturing sectors.

Specifically, access to mobile phones is helping small-scale farmers and producers to be more agile and connected in the supply chain. In March 2015, the University of Nottingham produced a report, The Impact of Reducing Food Loss in the Global Cold Chain. It pointed out that at the end of 2014 there were more than 635 million mobile phone subscriptions in sub-Saharan Africa, a figure that is expected to rise to 930 million by the end of 2019. This is prompting the development of apps to empower farmers to use the best working practices and to find ways of reducing food waste. M-Farm and Mkulima Young are apps that help to connect buyers with farmers, so that growers can establish new markets.

From online applications to smart bins and drones, the range of technology available to the food industry and its accessibility is increasing year on year, meaning that one day it could hit zero waste.