Going to waste: making the most of fruit

Waste is a problem across the food industry but there are innovations being made to alleviate the problem in at least one area: fruit. From wonky fruit to shelf-life extending coatings, Callum Tyndall takes a look at the issue and the developments occurring.

Sustainability continues to be perhaps the predominant issue leading changes in the consumer industries but, while the issue is multi-faceted, the focus tends to have been drawn to packaging: cutting down on the amount of plastic while increasing reusability and recyclability. While certainly important, there are other issues to consider such as the wastage of food itself. A February 2018 report from food and environment charity Feedback found that fruit and vegetable farmers were wasting up to 37,000 tonnes of produce each year, enough, according to Feedback’s estimation, to keep cities as big as Birmingham and Manchester sufficiently supplied for a year.

There are various reasons behind the problems of food waste, and the fruit market is by no means the only culpable sector. However, it is the market which has made perhaps some of the most significant progress in addressing the problem. Given the cost of food waste, both financially (a study from the Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap) estimated the average UK family loses roughly £750 a year throwing away edible food) and materially (think of the above mentioned tonnage and the use it could have been put to), it is vital that the industry as a whole contends with how to innovate at each step of the supply chain to minimise waste.

Waste not the wonky: Sodexo’s Wasteful to Tasteful and other Grade B reimaginings

Alarmingly, one of the deciding factors in fruit waste has been simple aesthetics: products that have been graded as not meeting the necessary appearance for retailers may often end up being left to rot. Various efforts have been implemented in attempts to popularise ‘wonky’ fruit and introduce these products into supermarkets, but there is still a way to go; consumers are understandably likely to be drawn to fruit and vegetables that appear ‘perfect’. 

One of these efforts has come from Sodexo, a French food services and facilities management company, which has launched an initiative called Wasteful to Tasteful in partnership with Waste Knot, an organisation connecting companies to surplus food, and Ferryfast, a Worcestershire farmer co-operative. The initiative provides catering teams at over 100 sites with weekly boxes of Grade B vegetables (essentially, vegetables deemed unfit for retail for non-safety reasons) and monthly boxes of similar fruit. 

Catrin Thorndike, category & sustainable procurement manager for Sodexo UK & Ireland, said: “We are extremely excited to be able to use these vegetables which, apart from their look and size, still retain their nutritional value and delicious taste. The produce is perfect for use in a range of dishes including soups, stews and puddings as it really doesn’t matter what they look like before they are prepared and cooked. If we can demonstrate that our top chefs can create delicious and inspiring dishes using wonky veg then hopefully it will help encourage our customers to do the same at home.”

Elsewhere, Tesco unveiled a new line of juices in May 2018 that are made from a range of fruit that would otherwise have gone to waste and are packaged using 30% recycled plastic. At the time of launch, Tesco estimated that the first twelve weeks of Waste Not juice production would save 3.5 tonnes of waste fruit and veg. This is not the first move by supermarkets to attempt to increase their usage of traditionally discarded produce, with several beginning to sell a variety of ‘wonky’ veg in the last couple of years, but it’s an important addition to retailers’ arsenal against wastage. 

The prospect of ‘synbiotic’ products combining both pre and probiotic elements should be considered for potential benefits.

Brexit’s effect on seasonal workers and the need for more fruit

There is, however, still a long way to go in addressing the root causes at the heart of the food waste problem. In many ways, it all comes back to the supply chain and how the threat of waste is handled at various stages. According to Wrap, the UK Government waste advisory board, 71% of UK food waste comes from households and just 2% from supermarkets. Notably, however, 17% of edible food that goes to waste is from manufacturers and farms. There are various reasons for this, with Feedback believing that supermarkets need to take greater responsibility for their outsized power in the supply chain and its effect on farms for example, but one of the looming sources of trouble is Brexit.

British farms rely heavily on seasonal migrant agricultural workers, employing 60,000 workers a year (largely from Eastern Europe) to assist summer fruit and vegetable growers. Yet with the spectre of Brexit hovering, those workers have seemingly become discouraged from seeking farm jobs in Britain. FreshPlaza reported in November that there had already been a 10% shortfall of EU workers in 2018, according to the National Farmers’ Union, while British Summer Fruits was claiming shortages from 10%-20%. Although there are plans in place to help assist with this issue (which also seem likely to prove inadequate) the industry faces the real threat of having to suddenly fill a dramatic gap in available labour. And without those workers, masses of fruit are likely to be left to rot.

However, despite the amount of fruit currently – and at risk of – being wasted, we actually need to produce more. According to researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada, we should be growing 15 daily servings of fruits and vegetables per person. Currently, we are only growing five. While nutrition models generally suggest that fruit should comprise 40% of a daily diet, only 28% of global production is directed towards the sector. The research suggests several solutions to the current imbalance, but one stands out for our purposes: reducing food waste. By reclaiming the nutrition currently wasted in landfill, we could not only ensure more people are fed, but also dramatically reduce the amount of land we need to meet the world’s nutritional requirements. By addressing food waste, we could feed 10 billion people with 899 million hectares; if we don’t, that number grows to somewhere in the region of a billion hectares.

It’s important that consumers understand that all those nicely labelled containers on store shelves are not vetted by the FDA.

A lasting Apeel: a simple solution to extending shelf life

One way to reduce waste is to increase shelf-life; if fruit lasts longer then it reduces the amount of new product supermarkets have to order and increases the chance of consumers picking it up before it goes off. Answering this need is a deceptively simple innovation: Apeel. Backed by funders including Bill Gates, Apeel Sciences was founded in 2012 with a simple mission to extend shelf-life and reduce food waste in the process. The company’s eponymous product took six years and a lot of money to reach fruition but could now transform the issue of perishability. At its simplest, Apeel is the powdered fatty oil of various fruits and vegetables combined with water and then sprayed onto produce. The result? Shelf-lives that are doubled, tripled, and even quadrupled. 

“We always had the hypothesis that if we could make fruit stay higher quality for longer, it would be good business and result in improved economics for suppliers and retailers, but it hasn’t been until the last three months now that we have products in market,” James Rogers, Apeel’s founder, told Forbes in September. “We’re getting the numbers back from our retail partners, and we’re demonstrating that, yes indeed, reducing losses is good business.”

The first three months of Apeel avocados saw up to 60% less produce discarded from one of Apeel’s retail partners. The largest grocery chain in the US, Kroger, is also bringing Apeel’s product into its stores in an effort to reduce costs. If Apeel can continue to diversify its offerings, as it plans to, then it is entirely possible that the company’s produce, or similar competitors, could soon fill the fruit and vegetable aisles of supermarkets. If they can do so, the reduction of food waste could be truly dramatic. And if environmental concern wasn’t enough, the financial savings alone are likely to be a powerful motivator. 

The global market for prebiotics is predicted to reach $7.91bn by 2025

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