Walmart taking a bite out of food waste

Company initiatives include clearer food labeling and selling imperfect produce.

With 795 million people in the world reportedly going hungry, addressing food waste has become an important part of the solution. In the U.S. alone, consumers throw away an estimated $29 billion worth of edible food each year in their homes. Some of the largest global food companies, including Walmart, have begun taking steps to decrease food waste.

According to Frank Yiannas, vice president of food safety at Walmart, two culprits of food wastage are confusion caused by food labels and the tossing of imperfect but perfectly usable fresh produce.

“Consumers often mistake date labels as food safety indicators; however, most of the labels are created based on peak quality,” he said. Adding to the confusion is the different language used on labels, including “best by,” “use by” and “sell by.” As such, over the past year, Walmart started requiring suppliers of non-perishable food products under its Great Value private label to use a standardized date label: “Best if used by.”

The switch will go into full effect this month and involves thousands of products.

Yiannas said a report released in 2013 by the Harvard Food Law & Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council titled “The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America” caught the attention of the company, causing the team to begin working on a solution.

After surveying customers about how they would choose a food label that indicated a change in quality but not safety, “best if used by” was a clear winner.

“I expect the standard labels to have an even bigger impact on waste reduction, since many of our suppliers sell products under their own labels outside of Walmart. This is significant, as the global economic impact of food wastage comes to about $750 billion each year,” Yiannas noted.

Although food waste has been making headlines in recent months, he said Walmart has been doing its part for more than a decade, especially where fresh produce is concerned.

“For years, we’ve worked with farmers to repurpose fruits and vegetables that may be slightly blemished or oddly shaped. These items usually make up a very small part of a harvest and aren’t a major contributor to food waste; however, we know every bit counts.”

While a customer may not take home a triangle-shaped apple from the store's produce bins, Yiannas said such an apple is just as tasty when made into apple juice.

“Earlier this year, we began selling Spuglies — Russet potatoes that were less than perfect on the outside thanks to rough weather in Texas. Working with our supplier, we found a way to offer these at a value price. Our 'wonky veg' test at Asda in the U.K. was so popular (that) we now offer it year-round when farmers have enough supply.”

Because customers around the world shop very differently, the Walmart team in the U.S. has been working for months on its first specs for this type of produce. “We’re exploring the ways to make these items available while providing value to our customers and supporting farmers.”

In 2009, Walmart and Sam’s Club U.S. launched a first-of-its-kind organics recycling program nationwide. As of 2015, the equivalent of more than 25,000 tractor-trailers full of food waste has been diverted out of the waste stream through composting, conversion to animal feed and energy production through anaerobic digestion, the company reported.

In 2015, Walmart also began selling garden products from Ecoscraps, a company that turns food scraps into organic and sustainable lawn materials such as compost, potting mixes and plant food. To date, sales of these products amount to more than 2.4 million lb. of food waste diverted from landfills, Yiannas explained.

Another recent collaboration has been preventing millions of eggs from being thrown away annually.

“Food waste is a big problem that will only get bigger as the world’s population grows. Countries around the globe are realizing we’re not going to be able to produce our way to feeding 9 billion people, so we have to reduce food waste now,” he said.

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