In the world every year the humankind produces about 3.9 billion tons of food, of which 1.3 billion are wasted, about 4 times the amount needed to feed 795 million undernourished people. The reasons for this phenomenon are many, and part of the waste is due to inefficient industrial production systems. To give an example, in the agro-food chain, waste begins even before planting, when food production is planned according to different parameters from the actual demand for food. From here, waste ends well after the last dish is consumed because waste disposal involves further waste of resources.
Within industrial production, when talking about wasted food, a distinction must be made between food losses and food waste. Food loss is the loss of mass or nutritional quality of food originally intended for human consumption, usually caused by inefficiencies in the supply chain. Food waste, on the other hand, is indicated as the food discarded during production processes, including waste at the final point of sale. Among the main categories of food waste we can find:
– Technical malfunctions and inefficiencies in production processes, meaning all those quantitative losses and damage to the food being processed.
– Processing processes, which is when the saleable part of the food item, the edible but not saleable parts (skins, skin, fat), and the inedible parts (bones, stones, etc.) are separated.
– Quality standards, for example, adherence to certain product dimensions, color, weight, the grade of a defect, and Brix (a measure of sugar content).
However, the main food waste streams involve three distinct main channels, which are food waste from the processing process, by-products of the processing process, and inventories/excesses. The first channel is represented by process waste, including waste deriving from process interruptions or product changes, with the exception of substances used for plant washing and cleaning. The second instead is made up of process by-products, excluding animal by-products originating during the various phases of the transformation process, used for energy production. While the last one concerns products which, although they meet the quality standards of food safety, are not purchased and used by the final client or are not used in the transformation process.
In addition to these three flows, there is the flow of finished or semi-finished products downstream of the transformation process, of which we can identify three precise categories.
– Surpluses due to domestic sell-by date: excess processed products, primarily due to incorrect demand forecasting.
– Surpluses due to product non-conformity: processed products suitable for human consumption from a nutritional and hygiene point of view, but rejected for aesthetic reasons.
– Surpluses due to packaging nonconformity or damage.
In order to reduce food waste as much as possible during the various stages of production, companies can adopt a series of measures to improve production sustainability, including a reduction in waste due to aesthetic discrepancies. A reduction in food waste due to unclear interpretation of label indications. A reduction in wastage due to the failure to recover products nearing expiry. And the recovery of defective products through their destination to specialized organizations that can convey them to indigent people.
In addition to these, there is another one: the adoption of important and efficient inspection systems along the entire production chain. In recent years, new multi-analysis inspection technologies are being developed (for example, those that combine photonics, X-rays, artificial intelligence, infrared, etc.). These systems make it possible to improve the efficiency of the entire production chain, avoiding the problem of recalling entire production lots from the market because they do not meet quality and aesthetic standards. Moreover, constant monitoring of the products allows to prevent and localize the presence of harmful foreign bodies that would be lost. In fact, these new systems make it possible to generate a chemical and physical analysis of the products, simplifying quality control upstream by intervening from the beginning on non-conformities, allowing an easier and more immediate sustainable disposal.
The data in this article are provided by LIFE-Food.Waste.StandUp project co-financed by the European Commission within the program for the environment and climate action (LIFE 2014 – 2020).