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This article is sponsored by Tetra Pak.

Best before, use-by or sell-by dates have a big impact on food waste because they drive consumer behavior. However, these dates do not necessarily indicate if something is safe to be consumed, and even vary depending on where you live. For example, milk in Montana must be sold within 12 days of being pasteurized. According to food waste experts, the industry standard is 21 to 24 days, meaning retailers in Montana are throwing out milk that could be sold and consumed in most other states.

One third of all food produced worldwide never gets consumed. Not only is that wasteful, but it produces a significant carbon footprint — an alarming 8 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide can be attributed to food waste. Tackling this issue is an integral part of addressing the climate emergency.

The findings from the latest Tetra Pak Index indicate that consumers are increasingly alert to the damaging impact of food waste. Over three quarters (77 percent) of respondents consider food waste an environmental concern. Despite this, half (50 percent) of respondents still throw away food a few times a month or more.

To overcome this gap between awareness and action, we need to inform and inspire consumers about what they can do to reduce food waste. Further, the food and beverage industry needs to look at entire food systems, and collaborate to minimize loss and waste across every step of the value chain.

Engaging consumers

Labelling has a big part to play here. Universally, there is a lack of understanding amongst consumers around expiration dates on foods and beverages, and what they mean. With different laws in different states and countries, it’s no wonder consumers are confused.

In the 2020 edition of the Tetra Pak Index, 39 percent of global consumers said they throw away food because the “best before” date has passed, even if it doesn’t smell or look bad. Meanwhile, 30 percent would “never” consider consuming a product after its expiration date, and over a third would only do so for certain products.

One supermarket in the United Kingdom went so far as to scrap use-by dates on its own brand of milk products in an attempt to reduce food waste. While this may seem drastic, it empowers consumers to reduce food waste, as they become the ones to determine if the milk is good to use. A proactive approach to educating consumers on any misconceptions can go a long way in the fight against food waste.

Packaging to reduce food waste

Food waste can also be reduced through innovative food processing and packaging solutions. Almost 70 years ago, Tetra Pak introduced the first machine for aseptic filling. This process helps keep food safe, nutritious and available — with no preservatives and no refrigeration needed — over months. As such, it was recognized by the Institute of Food Technologists as the most important food science innovation of the 20th century.

We also see that consumers are paying significantly more attention to how their food is packaged. In particular, plastic continues to be an issue for consumers, with 42 percent saying they are consciously using less since the pandemic, according to the 2021 Tetra Pak Index. COVID-19 acted as a wake-up call, fostering the recognition that we all have a part to play in protecting the planet. Consumers have rewired their priorities; the personal, economic and environmental fragility we all have experienced has created a shift from concern to active caretaking.

By prolonging the shelf life of products with processing solutions such as pasteurization and UHT treatment, combined with innovative packaging such as shelf-stable packaging, food waste can be reduced.

Shelf-stable packaging also enables producers to better plan production, again reducing the amount of raw materials wasted. When it comes to distribution, shelf-stable packaging is extremely cost-efficient, making it possible for manufacturers to reach consumers in remote locations and provide them access to safe and nutritious food.

Providing the right-sized packages can also help to reduce food waste so consumers can select the package that best matches their consumption needs. Right-sizing can help to tackle wasteful patterns of food consumption and deliver safe, nutritious and flavorful food that is resource-efficient to produce and transport.

By 2050, the United Nations predicts that there will be 9.8 billion people on the planet, and this exponential growth will put pressure on our food system, as overall demand for food will increase by 50 percent, rising to nearly 70 percent for animal-based foods. As such, balancing sustainability, food safety and availability is a must.

While scrapping use-by dates is a first step in tackling food waste, solid progress can only be achieved if we work together across the value chain.

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