Amid the current global trends surrounding climate change, waste reduction and economic growth, the complexity of the issue cannot be ignored. Responsible for 24% of greenhouse gas emissions, food waste has a substantial impact on the environment, one of the major contributors to climate change.

By Murali Manohar*

Awareness of sustainable practices is becoming increasingly imperative, especially in the food and beverage industry. Sustainability is vitally interlinked across all stages of the food ecosystem, from sourcing and processing to final consumption. Amid the current global trends surrounding climate change, waste reduction and economic growth, the complexity of the issue cannot be ignored. Responsible for 24% of greenhouse gas emissions, food waste has a substantial impact on the environment, one of the major contributors to climate change. In 2021, 17% of global food production went into waste bins, as per the UNEP Food Waste Index Report. While most of the food wasted is by consumers, it could be attributed to the confusion around the ‘use by date’ or ‘best before use date’.

The enormous amount of food wastage and its consequences on the environment gives F&B manufacturers the opportunity to put future generations and the environment on the path to sustainable development. Progressive F&B businesses are thus opting for new approaches that centre around best-befores and use-by-dates and leveraging technologies to streamline their operations, reduce food losses and improve their profits and competitiveness.

Making Sense of Date Labels

One of the key areas to be addressed is consumer confusion over dates on products. As per UNEP’s 2021 report, an Indian household wastes 50 kg of food every year.  Most of the households discard food items that have crossed their ‘expiry’ or ‘best before’. According to the International Journal of Food and Nutritional Sciences, about 58% and 55% of subjects reported that they ‘always’ or ‘often’ threw away food if it passes the ‘best before use date’.

Consumer education obviously has a role to play in reducing food waste. Building awareness about how best before dates are not the same as use-by dates, and implementing consistent labelling standards where possible is key. So is providing more information on fridge temperatures. For example, particularly when you consider that even just a 1°C increase in fridge temperature can shave a whole day off the life of some products. But, as we’re already seeing, the industry can take other proactive steps too, paving the way for a distinct decrease in food waste.

Smart Shelves and Dynamic Dates

For instance, some supermarkets are experimenting with smart shelves, which reduce the price of items in-line with decreasing use by and best before dates, technology that has the potential to make it all the way into the home, with smart fridges able to alert consumers to impending use by dates. In a similar vein, the introduction of a dynamic shelf life for products, where a shelf life is adjusted according to the actual quality of the product, is a very attractive proposition for manufacturers, retailers and consumers alike. And it’s where food manufacturers, who sit at the very heart of the food industry, can take the lead in making the most of the information and technology available to them to blaze a trail when it comes to optimising the shelf lives of products to make a significant difference in the staggering amount of food that’s wasted on a daily basis.

There are countless variables that go into determining the shelf life of a product, including what it’s made of, how and when it’s made, how it will be treated on its journey to the consumer and, ultimately, how it will be treated once it arrives with the consumer. By assessing all the available information, it’s down to manufacturers to determine use by or best before dates, which to mitigate against potential health and safety risks, always tend to be on the conservative side. This erring on the side of caution, while understandable, clearly has the potential to contribute to the seemingly ever-increasing amounts of food wasted by consumers, an issue that the right technology can help to address.

Data-driven Dates

When it comes to shelf life, one size really does not fit all, particularly with perishable products, and can also vary dramatically from batch to batch. The application of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) capabilities can help manufacturers to take into account all the different variables at all stages of the farm-to-fork supply chain to formulate a dynamic shelf life for each product.

In practice, this involves the condition monitoring of ingredients and finished products, both upstream and downstream, looking at storage and transportation times and conditions pre-production, during and post-productions, as well as raw ingredient quality profiling and examining what will happen to the product once it reaches the retailer.  Internet of Things (IoT) devices are perfect for this approach, able to measure the vital variables and feed this crucial information back into intelligent systems for analysis to determine optimum use by or best before dates which are aligned to the specific quality attributes of an individual batch of products.

Optimal Operations

This granularity and visibility of information right across the supply chain bring with it additional benefits for manufacturers too. The right systems can deliver the depths of foresight needed to better inform planning and sourcing decisions. For example, insight into what ingredients are to be expected can allow manufacturers to dynamically change the recipe to compensate for any shortcomings in ingredient quality or characteristics. Similarly, it enables manufacturers to investigate alternative sources of ingredients, if a particular supplier is found lacking or move to a different method of transportation if current services are contributing to reduced shelf life.

Additionally, employing such tactics can have cost benefits too. For instance, although higher quality ingredients generally offer a longer shelf life, one must question the value in paying extra for an ingredient because it’s stable for longer if the end product itself will only ever have a limited shelf life, particularly in this era of trying to minimise stock holding wherever possible. Ultimately, this whole approach can optimise manufacturing operations, while contributing to wider efforts to reduce food waste significantly.

The right technology holds the key to placing food manufacturers at the heart of any efforts to reduce food waste. Forward-thinking businesses are already recognising this, making use of the information and tools available to them along the entire breadth of the wider supply chain to gain the insight needed to inform best practices when it comes to the dynamic dating of food products. This approach paves the way for less food to be wasted across the globe, representing a concerted effort on behalf of the food industry to find a solution to one of the most pressing challenges facing us all today.

* Managing Director, India Subcontinent, Infor