Can We Both Cut Food Loss and Waste and Also Maintain Food Safety?
This post is written by contributors from the Center for Nutrition, USAID Bureau for Resilience and Food Security (RFS): Johanna Andrews-Trevino, American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy fellow, Division for Food Safety; Ahmed Kablan, Senior Science Advisor, Division for Food Safety; and Julie MacCartee, Knowledge Management and Learning Specialist.
Food safety and food loss and waste (FLW) are closely interlinked aspects of food systems. On the surface, it may seem that these two aspects oppose one another: discarding unsafe foods results in increased FLW. However, there are many opportunities and synergies between efforts to reduce FLW and promoting public health through improved food safety. Before we dive into how food safety, loss and waste overlap, let’s break down the difference between food loss and food waste:
- Food loss refers to food that spills or spoils (e.g., bruising, wilting) before it reaches consumers. Food loss typically occurs at the production, harvesting, storage, processing and distribution stages of the food system. It is usually the unintended result of an agricultural process or technical limitation in storage, transportation, infrastructure, packaging and/or marketing.
- Food waste refers to food that is initially of good quality and fit for human consumption, but is not consumed because it is discarded, either before or after spoilage. Food waste typically, but not exclusively, takes place at the retail and consumption stages of the food system. Food is typically thrown away because of negligence or because it is believed to be unsafe or unsavory.
Although both food loss and waste occur in all parts of the world, food loss tends to be more predominant in low- and middle-income countries, whereas food waste is more common in high-income countries.
Now that we know the difference between food loss and food waste, how do they connect to food safety? Test your knowledge — are the following bolded statements TRUE or FALSE?
- The presence of any amount of a food safety hazard means a food should be discarded.
FALSE! Not all types or levels of contamination pose a public health threat. For example, small amounts of insect fragments in flour are not harmful to consumers, and some foods contaminated with bacteria may be washed, cooked or processed to remove the threat. Food system actors should adopt a food safety risk-based approach rather than a hazard-based approach. A food safety risk-based approach aligns resources and mitigation strategies based on the likelihood that a hazard exists within a food product and the risk of exposure to determine if there is a considerable public health threat. A hazard-based approach does not consider the magnitude or impact of the hazard on the intended population.
- Aesthetically-imperfect produce is unsafe.
FALSE! Imperfections in produce, such as bruising, discoloration and odd shapes, do not necessarily mean a food is unsafe or unhealthy. While imperfect fruits and vegetables with unique shapes can become unsafe if they are not handled properly, the imperfections on their own should not be the sole indicator of quality. In general, “ugly” fruits and vegetables are fine to eat as is, or they can be repurposed. For example, bruised apples might be used to make applesauce.
- Efficient food safety systems result in increased food loss and waste.
FALSE! A sound food safety system will keep safe foods available and reduce food loss by discouraging discarding imperfect foods. Here are a few ways in which food safety systems and policies can reduce waste:
- Date labeling (sell-by dates) can both reduce unnecessary discarding of food and improve food safety.
- Mass discarding of foods may be reduced through enforcement of food safety regulations and frequent monitoring and tracking of products through the supply chain so that food items of concern may be traced.
- Efficient food safety systems can help identify which foods are safe for human consumption, which should be repurposed as animal feed and which should truly be taken out of the food system and used for a non-nutritive purpose.
- Climate change increases food safety risk and loss.
TRUE! Climate change can lead to increased risks for foodborne illness. Increases in temperature and humidity in many areas are expected to lead to increased bacterial, viral and pathogenic contamination of water and food by altering the survival and transmission patterns of these pathogens. Increased contamination means more unsafe food, which must be removed from the food system, resulting in losses.
- Food loss and waste worsen climate change.
TRUE! Food loss exacerbates the climate crisis by creating emissions to produce food that goes to waste and generating methane, a potent greenhouse gas, when waste ends up in landfills. Eliminating FLW would reduce all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions by about 6-8%, according to the World Wildlife Fund. In addition, repurposing otherwise-wasted foods as animal feed can reduce the need to clear carbon-capturing forests to grow animal feed.
- Post-harvest loss-reducing measures could have dual benefits, reducing food loss and waste and improving food safety.
TRUE! Many post-harvest practices, such as drying and cold storage, can maintain both the quality and quantity of food and also improve food safety. The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for the Reduction of Post Harvest Loss and for Food Processing and Post-Harvest Handling are testing a variety of low-cost technologies that can help farmers and processors maintain food safety by reducing FLW.
So, what's the takeaway? Achieving safer food while also reducing food loss and waste is not an impossible task. Rather than adding to landfills, safe, edible surplus food can be redistributed to those in need. Unavoidable organic waste can be composted, used in anaerobic digestion (waste-to-energy) or waste-to-animal-feed operations. A sustainable food system, with a larger nutritional impact and a smaller climate footprint, can only be realized if we ensure loss and waste are significantly decreased across the food chain.