Chapter 5: Conclusion

Moving forward to fight food waste effectively

In the new report, “Checked Out: How U.S. Supermarkets Fail to Make the Grade in Reducing Food Waste,” the Center for Biological Diversity and the Ugly Fruit and Veg Campaign reveal that the majority of the American supermarket sector lacks a clear and effective commitment to food-waste reduction, particularly when compared to its European counterparts. Most companies have food donation and recycling programs with publicly available data.

But initiatives to prevent food waste in the first place are not as widespread, despite the social, economic and environmental advantages of prioritizing prevention. Many of the solutions outlined in this report were highly rated in ReFED’s Retail Guide for their feasibility and/or profit potential.

Companies need to institute structural changes that shift toward progressive and transparent food-waste reduction policies. This includes publicly reported results to create accountability with partners, suppliers, shareholders and customers. Of the companies studied in the report, few have even taken the first step of tracking and reporting their overall food waste.

One company representative told us that “reporting on such granular information is time consuming.” Yet this investment of time is critical to advancing food-waste reduction industry-wide and could help save money and natural resources.

In the face of a rapidly changing online and in-store retail grocery market, establishing clear, sustainable food-waste reduction policies can also increase a company’s draw with customers.

There were many missed opportunities among the companies studied in this report. ALDI, for example, has a strong food-waste reduction program in its U.K. operations but has yet to export those efforts to the United States. Trader Joe’s and Costco have bulk-purchasing business models that would lend themselves well to supporting whole crop purchases, yet neither has made a public commitment to do so.

Publix has a system in place to track its seafood products within the supply chain, which could be similarly adapted to other products. Whole Foods has built a reputation on sustainability but has not made any public commitments to addressing food waste.

Just as it is important for supermarkets to take responsibility for food waste up the supply chain, they must also address the role they play in household food waste. When it comes to shopping initiatives, some companies have started instituting practices to maximize freshness or have supported standardized date labels.

However, there is an overall lack of creativity and understanding about how practices from stocking to sales influence shoppers and contribute to wasted household food. For example, one company claimed that “Buy-one get-one free provides retailers with the option to offer our customers products that are close to expiration date at a discounted price (thus reducing our food waste).”

Data shows that buy-one-get-one-free offers are correlated with food waste through over-purchasing. Proper information and strategic planning can eliminate these wasteful initiatives.

Companies like Tesco have found that less wasteful, more shopper-friendly strategies include price reductions for staples and perishable items. To their credit, some U.S. companies have taken steps in this direction: Examples include Albertsons’ Just-4-U app, which helps with meal planning, and Walmart’s in-store shopper education initiatives.

Overall recommendations for resolving grocery food waste at the retail level include:

  • Improve tracking of food-waste data with publicly reported results on the volume and types of wasted food as well as how many stores are participating in prevention and donation programs;
  • Expand in-store initiatives to reduce food waste through improved stocking, packing and display measures as well as initiating customer-education programs;
  • Extend cosmetic standards to sell imperfect produce across all stores with publicly reported data on volume processed and sold;
  • Commit to purchasing whole crops from major suppliers and publicly report on how much of its suppliers crops are being purchased; and
  • Commit to zero surplus food waste by 2025.

Although steps need to be taken in other venues like households and restaurants to address food waste in the United States, supermarkets are often the gatekeepers between individuals and farms. As a result grocery retailers have the opportunity and the responsibility to lead the way in fighting food waste.

By making a specific and time-based commitment to eliminating food waste and instituting policies that reduce waste from farm to fork, supermarkets can transform waste in the retail sector, help achieve national and international food-waste reduction goals, save money and, in turn, reduce harms to natural resources, habitat and wildlife.

From Checked Out: How U.S. Supermarkets Fail to Make the Grade in Reducing Food Waste, a report from the Center for Biological Diversity and the Ugly Fruit & Veg Campaign.