Mapping ahead for Australia’s food waste future

Food waste is an issue. It’s a massive issue. It’s something that everybody – from consumers and manufacturers through to primary producers – know about, and want to do something about, but never quite get around to fixing. Everybody can take their share of blame. People cook more than they should, picky eaters leave a lot on their plates, primary producers can cause a glut by overproducing certain crops, while retailers are too fussy about the size and shape of perfectly edible fruit and vegetables.

With that in mind, FIAL was engaged by the Australian federal government to identify the way forward. The resulting “Roadmap For Reducing Australia’s Food Waste by Half by 2030” has now been released. Before being appointed by FIAL, Barthel spent more than 10 years in the UK trying to help reduce that country’s food waste issues. And it has been successful.

“Just one example in the UK, with regard to the commitment there, has been with the whole grocery chain,” said Barthel. “It’s saved consumers and businesses $12bn over the first 10 years of activity. It has reduced greenhouse gas emissions incredibly efficiently. There was a 28 per cent reduction in food waste over that 10 years with 11 million tonnes of CO2 emissions saved. That is a phenomenal thing to be able to say.”

There are a range of issues that need to be addressed, according to Barthel. The bad news is, Australia is behind the eight-ball compared to the UK and other European countries who, in some cases, have had plans in place for a decade. The good news is, that all of the problems that need addressing are solvable. What is obvious to Barthel and those who are trying to bring the roadmap to fruition is that there needs to be collaboration between all aspects of the industry. And this isn’t just a ‘she’ll be right’ and pat each other on the back kind of partnerships. It needs to be a lot more transparent and tangible. Such as? Take contracts for example, said Barthel.

“The way that some contracts are constructed can be an issue, because often there are quite high penalties for partial non delivery,” he said. “That sometimes drives oversupply without intentionally doing so because people are concerned around contract penalties and things like that. So, they produce more food so there is no shortfall but that means there is leftover supply.”

And that oversupply leads to one of the biggest issues surrounding food waste and something that a lot of retailers are starting to address, is around the stringent standards they put on food, particularly fruit and vegetables.

“I do wonder what the impact of this is [throwing out good food because of their shape],” he said. “In an ideal world, you would like to think that consumers are becoming acceptable to vegetables they might not usually see in the supermarket and they want that product irrespective of what size or shape it is. There is an opportunity to re-evaluate the cosmetic standards of produce between the primary producers and retailers.”

He gives a practical example of how a change can occur with regard to the humble potato. When he was in the UK, one of the projects he was involved with was to do with the potato value chain.

“We were working with one of the major retailers and we had a look at their quality statistics, which showed that they believed the optimum circumference of a potato was 45mm,” he said. “We said ‘Why 45mm?’ They said, ‘That’s the way it has always been’.

Again, we said ‘Why?’ It took them a while to find out where the specification had come from and it was written in some time like 1978. There was no agronomic reason behind that circumference. There was no consumer acceptability criteria there or anything.”
Barthel and his team decided to challenge the reasoning behind the standard.

“We thought, ‘What would happen if we reduced the circumference to 43mm?’ We thought consumers would not notice the change. But the farmer did. What the farmer saw was a five per cent increase in utilisation, which was close to $2,000 a hectare.”

Barthel believes it is those sorts of aspirations where savings can be generated and there are some win-wins, not just for primary producers, but for retailers, too.

“We’re asking retailers to question some of the rationale behind these broader quality standards they have,” he said. “They haven’t really seen with their own eyes, themselves, the impact the standards are having on primary producers.”

And that impact can sometimes lead to a double negative whammy at the paddock.
“We see about 31 per cent of food waste appearing in primary production in Australia, and that is about 2.27 million tonnes of food not harvested or ploughed back in,” he said. “And that is to do with economics as well as cosmetic quality standard. What seems to be happening is we have an over production in order for suppliers to hit the retailers perfect quality standard bell curve. And the overproduction itself then depresses the price and to a lot of farmers that means it is uneconomical to get that graded product out of the paddock.”

With the UK model, there were many shifts and changes throughout the past 10 years. That journey took him to a place where supermarkets and hospitality companies tended to have very transactional relationships; very short-term contracts with suppliers.

“In some cases, there were longer, or rolling contracts, for staples like milk and bread and things like that,” he said. “There was a lot of confusion as to what was required from suppliers, as well as at the end of the chain with the supermarkets and convenience stores. What really brought it to a head was that we really moved from a short-term journey – getting away from transactional relationships – to a more strategic food supply relationships, which also meant we had much longer contracting arrangements in place.”
Barthel said it is now not unusual to have 5- or 10-year contracts in place in the UK. He thinks it will lead to long-term, streamlined relationships that will reduce waste. Short-term transactional relationships with suppliers means there is no real incentive for retailers to work differently.

Then there is what Barthel calls the tyranny of distance. A key to food waste reduction is also the ability to extend the shelf life of products. However, that is compromised in Australia for a couple of reasons. A lot of the primary production is done in rural Australia, and being such a vast and sparsely populated continent means a couple of days in shelf life can be wasted in transit. And the transit itself is an issue, because as far as Barthel can see the country has virtually no cold storage chain. He was at a meeting when he brought up the term and got a surprising response.

“When I recently sat down with the Food Cold Chain Council it was very interesting,” he said. “I use the words ‘food cold chain’ in the meeting. The challenge I got back having used that term, with a few minor exceptions, was that there is no food cold chain in Australia. There is a supply chain that is intermittently humidity and temperature controlled. That shocked me. I hadn’t really appreciated how underperforming the cold chain was. Then I got my hands on a draft study the Food Cold Chain Council was putting together. And the study talks about a quarter of the fruit and vegetables going into the food cold chain being wasted, which is close to $3bn worth of food.”

Barthel said that to address some of these issues, there needs to be be what are called Sector Action Plans. This is where certain aspects of food waste are targeted for attention and actions put in place to improve the situation in a particular sector.

“The first section action plan in the roadmap is to work with food rescue and relief as a sector because what we saw from a baseline study was that less than 50,000 tonnes of food is being rescued a year,” he said. “This is at a point in time where 7.4bn tonnes of food is being wasted. We have to find a way to work with that sector so that we can increase the amount of food that is rescued and therefore not wasted. How do we mop up all that surplus food in the system and give it to the people who need it now?”

The second sector plan is to work with Refrigerants Australia and the Cold Chain Council, on how to improve the performance of Australia’s cold chain so more food can get to market before spoiling.

“How can we get the core temperature back before product is shipped? How can we maintain in-trailer temperature? We have to make sure the refrigeration equipment is being used effectively while the food is in transit,” said Barthel. “The other thing in the cold chain is the human factor. We have to stop people leaving doors open on the back dock of a distribution centre as they deliver a frozen or chilled food order. It might take them 20 minutes on a 40˚C day to unload – you’ve just lost you required -18˚C to maintain that food in the space of 20 minutes because you have left the door open.”

Then there is the voluntary factor. Voluntary commitments are just as important as legislation because it gives a sense of ownership and responsibility to all those involved.
“In other countries, voluntary commitments have worked incredibly well,” said Barthel. “In designing a voluntary commitment program for Australia, we looked at 24 other countries that already have a voluntary commitment program to tackle food waste. Some of the results have been astounding.”

According to Barthel, it is almost important to look at what methods are to be used to change peoples’ behaviour.

“That is what the Road Map is all about,” said Barthel “Behaviour change is hard. It takes a lot of time to get it right and to get moving. Typically, when people throw away food – it’s an unconscious behaviour. We don’t think about it. The first step you need to take is raise awareness of the issue. We are starting that, and businesses are now starting to realise how much food is being wasted.

He points to a recent survey of 5,300 households on attitudes on food waste in Australia by Fight Food Waste CRC. It asked those households what they thought was causing waste in the home and what could be done about it.

“We could see from the answers that there tends to be an understated amount of waste they are throwing out,” said Barthel. “What we could also see was that there was a substantial gap between stated behaviour and actual behaviour. What that means is people throw out more food than they think they do. The good news is that the study also showed the 76 per cent of Australian households are motivated to reduce food waste. And that is something that we can help both businesses and households can build on.”