The issue of food waste is very real. Approximately one-third of food produced for human consumption is wasted globally
While there is no single remedy to solving the problem of food waste, there are several steps that food processors and retailers can take to immediately improve operational efficiency and sustainability and reduce food waste.
In a recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the organization identified areas along the food supply chain where food waste occurs. The FAO report highlighted, for example, how improved technologies can help prevent food waste during the harvesting and processing phases of food production. It’s also known that advanced packaging technologies play an important role in ensuring the freshness and extending the shelf life of food, enabling retailers to better satisfy consumer demands and minimize food waste from farm to fork.
Innovation is nothing new to the packaging industry though. In fact, the Cryovac brand has its roots in solving a shelf-life challenge, albeit a much larger one: how to better preserve meat for French soldiers at the onset of World War II. The French inventor, Henry DePoix, pioneered vacuum packaging technology to better protect and preserve fresh meat, forever changing the way food is packaged.
Some 75 years later, while the challenges and technologies have certainly changed, the goal is the same: develop smart, sustainable packaging to extend shelf life, increase food safety and ultimately decrease food waste.
With a growing global population, the need to meet increased demand and address environmental concerns has never been more important.
A Global Food System
By 2050, it is estimated that the global population will grow an additional 33 percent to nearly 10 billion people, according to FAO estimates.
As a result, food demand is expected to nearly double and retailers will need to source more products globally. Not surprisingly, food may need to be transported further than ever before to reach its final destination. Product shelf life—and the packaging that ensures it—must be considered within this larger context.
As well as extending the shelf life of food products, there will be a growing need for food packaging that allows for safe and efficient transport to connect areas of food supply with those of greatest need, such as new urban areas. Helping processors increase transportation efficiency means fewer loads, reducing the environmental impact of transportation, as well as increasing access to safe, nutritious food.
Changing Consumer Habits
In developing countries, food loss often happens during post-harvest and processing, while industrialized countries face a similar level of food loss at the retail and consumer levels. Yet all countries are impacted by changing consumer habits and lifestyles, like rapid urbanization, expansion of supermarket chains, and dietary preferences.
Two big changes in consumer preference are impacting markets around the world: 1) the rise in global demand for proteins and 2) the emergence of new channels for food distribution, associated with the increase in e-commerce. For retailers and food processors, the changes in consumer habits present several challenges.
Firstly, proteins like meat, chicken, and fish are among the costliest items for retailers to stock and sell. And, unlike canned foods or dry goods, which often can be donated to food banks, protein products are often thrown out when their shelf life expires due to food safety concerns.
The USDA reports that in the U.S. alone, approximately 2.7 billion pounds of meat, poultry, and fish valued at $8.8 billion, or about 5 percent of all such inventory, are thrown out by retailers each year.
Effective packaging, like vacuum skin innovations, can reduce shrink and increase shelf life—sometimes nearly doubling it. This helps retailers tackle the problems of food loss and waste and ultimately improve their bottom lines.
Secondly, the rising demand for smaller portions due to shrinking household sizes and the need to protect food during e-commerce delivery increases the need for innovative packaging solutions to portion and protect food. For example, as shoppers change the way they plan for meals and make more use of meal kits, novel packaging solutions that extend shelf life like barrier bags and modified-atmosphere packaging are needed to deliver the high-quality products consumers demand while ensuring food safety.
Creating a Conversation
While sustainable packaging is not new, companies are increasingly opting for packaging alternatives to meet their own sustainability goals as well as consumer demands.
A 2014 Harris Poll Consumer Food Waste Study, commissioned by Sealed Air, showed that consumers are becoming more educated about packaging and its ability to reduce food waste, and have strong opinions about brands that demonstrate a commitment to sustainability. Here are some other interesting findings from the poll:
- 8 in 10 consumers agree that they would think more highly of stores or food brands that help them reduce food waste;
- 57 percent would think more favorably of a store if it used packaging that kept food fresher longer; and
- 43 percent of consumers consider food products that have packaging designed to keep food fresher longer to be environmentally friendly.
It is important for the industry to engage consumers in continued conversation around the role of packaging in extending freshness of food and reducing waste—something that impacts both the environment and consumers’ wallets.
Addressing food waste is a major concern that all stakeholders in the global supply chain must address in the future. The packaging industry has a major role to play. By focusing on solutions to increase product shelf life and increase distribution efficiency, innovative packaging does more than affect the sell-by date consumers might see on their products; it shapes the production-to-purchase process and can support the global goal of reducing food waste.
In addition, there will be a number of resource challenges, from changing climate and weather patterns impacting harvesting programs to a growing population and potential water and food scarcity issues. While it may not be possible to solve each one of these issues overnight, investing in smart, sustainable food packaging is a great place to start.