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04 December 2012

Slashing mountains of food waste

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Research examining every step of the food supply chain to cut down the unprecedented amounts of food wasted found that individual consumers need to be more involved

A delicious tomato and bell pepper soup, a green bean and potato salad and a refreshing strawberry, kiwi and banana smoothy. A chef from one of Holland’s leading catering companies had prepared these mouth-watering dishes using foods which had reached their best before date from a large supermarket. This initiative is part of new efforts to cut down on waste. Dutch food scientist Toine Timmermans of Wageningen University, Holland, who was treated to this improvised meal, explains: “You can bring good food back to the supermarket as ready-to-eat meals or prepared meals.”  Processing the fresh food gave it an added shelf life of four or more days.

This is just one example of attempts to reduce the astonishing amount of food European industry and consumers throw out each year. Timmermans is part of an EU funded project called FUSIONS, which aims for better monitoring of waste and more efficient use of resources, from field to fork. Figures are unreliable, but it is estimated that 89 million tonnes of food gets discarded in Europe, each year. This is enough to feed the equivalent of the population of Germany and Poland. The project hopes to better standardise how we measure food waste in different countries, so we can compare like with like.

Food waste is a Europe-wide epidemic. Germany had been slow off the mark, but its report card shows steady progress over the last two years, according to the Dutch scientist.  “In France it is not a big issue yet.  There are some local activities, but you do not see a common approach on a national level yet,” Timmermans says. UK consumers have a greater awareness of food waste thanks to the work of an organisation called WRAP, which achieved a 13% drop. Nordic countries also made some progress.

The EU Commission has called for meeting a target of 50% reduction of food waste by 2020. “It is quite easy for every organisation to reduce food waste by 25% just by making changes, which could be introduced tomorrow,” says Timmermans from his experience of studying waste in the entire food supply chain.  Indeed, “Government policy can incentivise or even enforce waste reduction and retailers need to make sure things like portion size of fresh vegetables are aligning with the increased tendency for smaller households,” comments food and society professor Lynn Frewer at Newcastle University, UK.

Frewer adds: “This is a food security issue. We need to make better use of the resources we have.” It is everybody’s responsibility, she tells  However, it is individual consumers who may be the weakest link in the chain, not be catering professionals or supermarkets. “While I’m confident the amount of food losses within the [food] supply chain can be reduced by 50%, I am not sure we will achieve the necessary change in the behaviour of consumers,” says Timmerman.

Simple solutions exist, according to experts. “Consumers can do their bit by pre-planning menus a bit better,” advises Frewer. “Also people should utilise less than perfect fruits and vegetables on display.  Consumers have been nudged into a preference for perfect products, but I guess they can be denudged.”

Dana Gunders, project scientist at US lobby group Natural Resources Defense Council, which advocates efficient use of resources, says: “Europe is taking the issue much more seriously than the US.  We are not seeing a recognition that this is an issue we should put more focus on.” Gunders’ believes, however, that her country will benefit from the project’s efforts to standardise food waste measures. provides its content to all media free of charge. We would appreciate if you could acknowledge as the source of the content.