Topic 1 The difference between food loss and food waste

Food waste and food loss refer to food as well as to the associated inedible parts removed from the food supply chain (= food that is not used for human consumption). Food that is still fully edible at the time of its disposal, or which would have been edible within timely use:

Not marketable (production, industry, trade)

Not eaten (food service, household), and is therefore disposed of.

Food loss refers to the decrease in quantity or quality that occurs during the whole food production process (production, processing, packaging, storage, distribution) until the final sale to the consumer at the retailer or the food service provider.

It can also occur at the farm, when food is transformed, packaged, stored and distributed.

Food waste refers to the decrease in quality or quantity that occurs at the level of the final retailers (e.g. supermarkets/groceries/local markets), the food service providers (e.g. restaurants, school and hospital cafeterias, catering operations, etc.) or the consumers. It can happen when consumers fail to plan their meals properly and store food until it rots or goes past the expiration date. It can also occur because of oversupply in markets or when retailers or consumers reject many foodstuffs because they do not meet aesthetic or quality standards. 

Global estimates suggest that about one third of edible food produced is lost or wasted along the supply chain due to several factors, from technological to behavioral ones (Gustavsson et al, 2011).

This diagram shows that food loss represents approximately 8% whereas food waste reaches 20%, making food waste a more important issue than food loss. It also shows the amount of food lost or wasted for each kilogram of food eaten.

The process starts with the primary production (PP), followed by food processing (FP) and retail distribution (RD), and finally (out-of-home, in-home) consumption (FC), before ending up as food disposal (FD).

As 1.28 kg of food is being needed at the first stage – PP, during the consumer consumption it is reduced to 1kg, with around 0.20 kg food waste related impacts.

Reducing food loss requires operational improvements like shelf-life forecasting, inventory and stock management, cold chain management or the development of methods to increase shelf life. It requires smart logistical improvements.

Many improvements have been made over the last decades, but at the same time the consumers’ demand is shifting towards more sophisticated products, prepared meals or exotic products, increasing the logistical complexity.

Reducing food waste requires operational improvements too, but an important difference is that there are many more stakeholders and each of them manages a large number of product references (whereas upstream food chains are more focussed on one product type, like dairy products, prepared food, etc.). Food waste can be reduced by operational and methodological improvements  but also by awareness raising and education.

Food waste is a reality and exists all over the world, but in different ways. In developing countries, more than 50% of food losses happen “upstream” (post-harvest or during processing), due to inadequate storage and refrigeration for example. But, in industrialized countries, almost half of all the global food is discarded “downstream”, which means that food waste happens in grocery stores, restaurants, and households.

The following figure gives an overview of the typology of food waste. Plant-based products are more represented than animal-based products, which is logical since plant-based food production is greater than animal-based food production.

This is quite logical as plant-based food production is greater than animal-based food production. Nevertheless, because meat has a higher environmental impact than vegetables, its smaller part in waste does not mean it has less impact, on the contrary.