The Complexity Of Waste

On an emotional level, it is sad that there is too much-wasted food that might have been “saved” from the garbage and consumed in another form — say, as a smoothie or in a soup — or donated to people in need. In a world in which people are hungry, the idea that nutritious food is left fallow in a field, deteriorates in a supply chain, is left to turn bad on a retail shelf or restaurant cooler, or becomes garbage at home is intuitively unsettling.

Surely, we should do everything possible to reduce food waste. To many, it seems a moral imperative, but in reality, the situation is more complex.

Food waste is, in fact, a sign that an efficient supply chain for food has triumphed. Nobody writes about the waste of polished diamonds or gold coins because these are so expensive that they are carefully guarded through every stage of their production and distribution. In contrast, food in general and fresh produce, in particular, is now so inexpensive that it often does not pay to eliminate waste.

Many years ago, my family grew peppers in Puerto Rico. Normally, we would go back through the fields and do a second picking to get a little more yield from the field. One year, however, there was a freeze in Florida, and the price of bell peppers skyrocketed, so we went back and did third, fourth and fifth pickings.

But under normal circumstances, avoiding this “waste” of peppers by picking the fields so many times would simply cause a bigger “waste” — this time of labor and thus money.

In other words, the more sustainable choice is to pick what is economically viable and save the scarce resources of labor and money to be applied where they can produce a positive return, rather than sacrificing them in the cause of reduced food waste.

The same applies in store. Preventing beautiful floral bouquets from having to be tossed by displaying them behind glass doors — thus keeping the cold chain perfect — sounds like a good idea. But not if the effect is consumers don’t want to open the glass doors — resulting in fewer flowers purchased.

Now it is important to distinguish between efforts to maintain quality and reduce waste. Frieda Caplan once addressed the Washington Apple Commission and berated its members because, although the industry spent untold millions to keep apples cold at the packing house and in transit, the industry sold its soul to get expansive retail space on unrefrigerated tables.

If being unrefrigerated caused the apples to turn mealy, this could indeed cause food waste. But that is a secondary effect of improper quality. Solve the quality problem, and the waste problem will take care of itself.

On the consumer level, though all consumers ideally would prefer not to see waste, most of the proposed solutions are problematic.

Sure, one might elect to “can,” freeze and compost, but a willingness to do these things assumes a level of engagement with the waste problem disproportionate to its impact on most people’s lives.

Money is a useful proxy for the value of things, and this is why if this columnist’s family is taking leftovers from an Italian restaurant, we will bring home the Sicilian steak or veal chop, but won’t bother packing up the mountain of spaghetti.

Technological solutions are intriguing, but if a new device allows for extended shelf life in the home refrigerator, the device might encourage more purchases, which may lead to more shrink. They also raise questions about the definition of fresh. If a technology allows lettuce to be in good condition for weeks, will consumers want to eat the lettuce? Will they still perceive it as fresh?

Waste levels find a natural equilibrium based on the price of an item and the cost of avoiding waste. This is true in the field, at the packing house, at the retail store, or restaurant and in the home.

Yet, even with this being true, consumer waste is an area in which the industry must engage. The problem is simple: If consumers have a fear of fresh waste, they will shy away and not buy as much fresh produce as they otherwise would. So the industry has to do all it can to change this mental attitude. It is not really hard. How many people join gyms but rarely work out, buy fancy tennis togs but never play, or buy gourmet cookbooks and eat burgers? We have to surround consumers with more options to avoid waste — whether this will avoid much waste is doubtful, but it will make consumers feel better about buying fresh produce.

There are some specific things the industry could do to really help reduce consumer waste. As the elderly population grows, people postpone marriage, or as people have children with only a single mother in the house, there is a demand for smaller packages — which is a scenario where the produce industry could step up and help. With more produce being packaged, this could be important.

Of course, just as the Zeitgeist lines up against food waste, a big part of the problem may be disappearing. Waste is often a function of the time that passes between ordering and consumption. In days past, there may not have been excellent refrigeration, but — partly as a consequence — consumers bought fresh food daily. We moved away from this pattern as refrigeration became common, homes became larger and more dispersed. Now with the rise of Internet shopping, one can imagine a frequency of delivery that rivals the daily marketing of years past.

If AmazonFresh will deliver every day, and the industry will sell in small quantities, perhaps the concern with consumer-level food waste will one day seem but a memory.