POTOMAC, Md. — On May 13, the Netherlands and Sweden drafted a letter to the European Union that proposes a novel yet simple solution to the problem of food waste in Europe.
The heavily researched letter, backed by delegations from Austria, Denmark, Germany and Luxembourg, wants the E.U. to do away with the “best before” date for foods with long shelf lives such as pasta and rice. The group of nations believes that confusion over the meaning of these dates has contributed significantly to the 89 million metric tons of food that are wasted each year in Europe.
Unlike “use by” dates that ensure foods are thrown out for reasons of health and safety, “best before” dates are simply there to mark the date before which taste is optimum. A bag of rice, for instance, is still perfectly edible long after this “best before” date passes. But many people prematurely discard of such food incorrectly with the belief that it is no longer safe to eat. In reality, however, only the taste has declined.
A report written last year by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers discovered that up to 50 percent of supermarket food on shelves is wasted, due in large part to this misunderstanding of the “best before” and “use by” labels.
Reducing such food waste could do wonders to help divert resources to the hungry. According to the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP,) about one-third of food produced in one year is lost or wasted. This amounts to 1.3 billion metric tons of food waste, a quarter of which could feed all of the world’s hungry.
As news of Europe’s food waste has spread, a new zero-waste movement has been emerging in the form of innovative businesses.
A Berlin grocery store that is currently raising funds to open its first location is trying to get rid of packaging altogether. Appropriately called Original Unverpakt, or “Original Unpacking,” the store is founded on the idea of “precycling”: avoiding recycling by reducing and reusing materials.
The store packages none of its foods unless necessary, in which case beeswax paper is used. Customers are required to bring their own reusable bags, which the store offers for purchase and rental.
Not everyone, however, believes that this zero-waste model will actually reduce food waste.
Sustainability consultant Julia Hailes thinks that the model will actually increase food waste; one supermarket’s switch to no packaging for fruit and vegetables, she says, produced a 50 percent increase in the store’s food waste.
British retail chain Waitrose has taken a different approach. It continues to package foods, but it now offers misshapen produce and weather-damaged crops in packaged bundles. Such food, which is perfectly edible and only differs in appearance, is often thrown away.
Tristram Stuart, a food waste campaigner, believes such undertakings are most important in their role of raising awareness of the food waste problem. He believes an approach similar to that taken by Original Unverpakt will encourage consumers to think more about packaging and their role in food waste reduction.