The future of food waste: is scrapping ‘best before’ dates really enough?

At a time when families are choosing between ‘heating or eating’, the problem of food waste feels like a particularly difficult problem to tackle; exacerbated by the fact that it currently accounts for 8-10% of all global greenhouse emissions.

Supermarkets looking to combat this waste have invested in a number of initiatives – including encouraging ‘sniff tests’ as they remove ‘best before’ dates. This headline-grabbing move has been popularised as a quick fix to the systemic shortfalls within a competitive consumption-based industry.

However, as 70% of food waste occurs in the home, the issue of sustainable consumption extends beyond supermarket packaging and requires a deeper look into supply chain conditions, the quality of sourcing and structural restrictions.

Grocery Gazette speaks to IMS Evolve director for global retail Jason Murphy, to discuss the limitations of ‘sniff tests’ and how  technological intervention along supply chains could be the future for mitigating food waste.

READ MORE: Waste not, want not: Why grocers must help consumers reduce food waste

From meal deals to the Digital Sandwich

Murphy has been a veteran in the retail industry, with robust experience from Sainsbury’s in the 1980s, to Makro and then Tesco.

“Looking back, there are probably very few roles in a retail store that I haven’t carried out – from General assistant through to Store Manager – before moving to central roles in maintenance to deliver change and improve food quality,” Murphy reflected.

With 30 years in retail operations, he cultivated an interest in ensuring product quality and reducing food waste as he believes the industry “has a duty, now more than ever with the cost of living crisis, to improve how we support our customers in this area.”

Currently, Murphy serves as IMS Evolve director for global retail – which is a Milton Keynes based IoT technology solutions company.

To strategise on utilising block chain technology to manage and monitor produce along its journey from farm to fork, Murphy along with a team have been working as part of a cross industry consortium on the UK government backed Digital Sandwich project.

Murphy cited the integral timing of the project which “aims to digitally transform the food supply chain to increase resilience, traceability and productivity, which is even more important post-pandemic and with the current challenges the industry is facing.”

 READ MORE: Stop Food Waste Day: Asda refill stores struggle to ‘attract families

Technological intervention for food waste

Contemplating the limitations to supermarket initiatives to decrease food waste at home, Murphy argues it doesn’t tackle the root causes of providing shoppers with “better quality food, that holds freshness for longer after they have purchased it.”

Of course there is value in removing “best before” dates as food manufacturers tend to set a conservative date to account for “account variances in conditions the food is travelling and being stored in across the supply chain.”

As a result, the supermarket sector has seen a wave of food waste reduction methods such as Morrison’s replacing “use by” dates on 90% of its own brand milk with “best before” dates and encouraging “sniff tests” as well as Co-op adopting a similar approach with yoghurt.

While these initiatives hold good intentions, they can only target specific produce and do little to actually increase shelf life.

“However, with 70% of food waste in the UK occurring in the customers’ homes, as the retailers become under increasing pressure to hit waste reduction targets, how will we support customers in being able to purchase better quality food that holds its freshness for longer after they have purchased it,” Murphy said.

Central  to the solution is re-focusing waste reduction on providing the “best quality products in the first place” which introduces the blockchain technology as a tool to monitor ingredients to ensure the safety of food.

“The next step for this technology is to use real-time data on how the food chain is performing to determine the optimal life for products,” he explained.

“Manufacturers can then adjust dates based on the actual quality of the product, while ensuring the safety of food and combating excessive household waste.”

READ MORE: Morrisons to remove ‘use by’ dates on milk to cut down food waste

Blockchain Technology

The aim of the Digital Sandwich Project is to “completely digitise the food supply chain by augmenting data, conducting analytics and applying control and automation.”

“Currently, IoT and connected technologies are used in retail environments to gain asset- level insights that enable monitoring and management of everything from refrigeration to HVAC infrastructure, regardless of manufacturer or age, across an entire estate,” Murphy explained.

“IoT, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and Distribution Ledger Technologies (DLT) all use the power of connected devices, and recent innovations, such as The Digital Sandwich Project, are leveraging these to develop a platform to digitise the supply chain.”

The project is based in creating a hyper-efficient supply chain that overlooks several components such as “temperature data or location information” to ensure produce “has been transported, processed and stored within the required optimum conditions to maintain food safety and quality.”

As a result the goal is to increase visibility and connectivity along the supply chain, which is both sustainably and financially economising – thus cutting costs for the consumer.

READ MORE: UK supermarkets create 200,000 tonnes of food waste

 The role of government in food waste reduction

While technological integrations sounds like a simple band-aid solution, Murphy admits that systemic change is “clearly required to reduce the excessive food waste currently taking place.”

“In a difficult, low margin industry, with a small number of players fighting hard to retain share, this change is incumbent upon innovators, disruptive market players and indeed, government legislation and actions,” he added.

With the Digital Sandwich Project being a government backed initiative with £4 million in funding to develop blockchain systems for supply chain security – the role of the state in pushing and financing climate conscious projects in indisputably essential.

While the government has committed to halving the UK’s per capita food waste by 2030 and has funded charities and projects such as the Digital Sandwich, there have been calls for more stringent measures.

Specifically, the need to incorporate statutory regulations to meet sustainability targets instead on relying on voluntary pledges.

“There is no doubt that the government and retailers should be commended for their work to reduce waste,” Murphy said.

“However, it also has the opportunity to use its influence over the supply chain, to further encourage the use of digital technologies to increase efficiency and limit food waste all the way from farm to fork.”

READ MORE: Hubbub reduces food waste with Mayor of London partnership

The future of food waste

“The best way to prepare for a future with as little food waste as possible is to begin laying the foundations of a more sustainable cold chain,” Murphy asserted.

While consumer awareness and education on judging product shelf life is a factor, it does little to address major inefficiencies in the corporate food retail sector.

The cold, which is a low temperature-controlled supply chain, requires a “solid data foundation which will see IoT technology take relevant data such as temperature or location information and allow it to be shared, accessed and leveraged right across the supply chain to ensure product provenance, traceability and longevity.”

According to Murphy, the future of a digitalised cold chain will ensure “product visibility, safety and quality” will be improved and be much more efficient.

By sufficiently leveraging IoT technology a future cold chain is the most efficient method to reduce food waste in this difficult and low-margin industry.

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