Tom Karst, National Editor
Tom Karst, National Editor

Blueberries that are moldy, black and bruised bananas, lettuce that time forgot in the recesses of the refrigerator. We all throw away produce, and probably more than we suspect. Food waste is becoming a hot issue, with organizations left and right suggesting how the waste can be curtailed. A recent U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization report estimated nearly half of fruits and vegetables produced worldwide are lost or wasted somewhere along the supply chain from farm to consumer. Among its recommendations, the paper urged producers to “harvest all that is grown, at the optimal time,” to invest in better storage technology and to compost/mulch unavoidable organic waste. While investing in improved storage technology and mulching organic waste are seemingly sound ideas, the idea of some technocrat advising growers to “harvest all that is grown, at the optimal time” is laughable. Have no doubt, growers have a notion of how to harvest their crop, and that usually means maximizing their yield and picking their crop at its peak. However, practical considerations can sometimes mean leaving fruit that is sunburned or otherwise defective in the field rather than incurring picking costs.

As for retailers, the U.S. FAO report suggests allowing consumers to customize the amount of food they buy, to expand the definition of acceptable food, to sell imperfect items at a discount and donate food that is unsellable but still edible. Again, these in the main do not seem especially objectionable goals. However, telling retailers to “expand the definition of acceptable food” is a foolish proposition. Why should retailers stock misshapen produce on their shelves — and pay the packing, handling and transportation costs from the farm — if consumers never buy it? In coverage in The Guardian, a story said Britain’s Soil Association calculates that in the United Kingdom, 20% to 40% of produce is rejected because it’s misshapen. Efforts to get U.K. retailers to carry ugly fruit haven’t been successful, so one business in England is envisioning “trendy shops selling exclusively misshapen fruit.” That is not a way to get “ugly” produce to the masses, sad to say. Speaking to the topic of expiration dates on perishable food, the Natural Resources Defense Council this week issued a paper called “The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America.” The report finds fault with the lack of binding federal standards and wide variability in state and local labeling rules. The authors said the current “convoluted system” results in confusion and food waste, since consumers think the label reflects the food’s microbial safety. Labels also bog down redistribution efforts by making the handling of past-date foods “administratively and legally complex.” The council recommends steps to standardize and clarify the food date labeling system across the U.S., including:   Make “sell-by” dates invisible to the consumer; Establish a reliable, coherent and uniform consumer-facing dating system; and Increase the use of safe handling instructions and “smart” labels.   The council gamely attempts to wrap up the problem in one fell swoop of prescribed solutions, and the goal of establishing a “reliable, coherent and uniform consumer-facing dating system” seems overly ambitious. Perhaps the PTI label could inform the consumer about product freshness, though most consumers use the eye and nose test to determine the fate of fruits and vegetables. There is no question the industry — and consumers — can do better in the quest to reduce food waste. Recent USDA statistics on loss-adjusted availability (counting the non-edible share of produce as loss) for fruits and vegetables show that 53% of fresh vegetables and 63% of fruits are lost somewhere in the supply chain. Just as sustainability measures should not be contrived or forced, the motivation to reduce fruit and vegetable waste in the supply chain should be based on simple economic motivation, enlightened self-interest. Do this, and make more money. You have black bananas? Make banana bread. So far, the invisible hand of the market is not providing enough answers and incentives to reduce food waste. tkarst@thepacker.com What's your opinion? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.