Saturday, June 20, 2015

We Are Wasting Good Food, The Result (Possibly) Of Evolved Human Expectations Of Beauty & Perfection

Human Consumption

Food DumpAllison Aubrey of NPR writes: “Cesar Zuniga, operations manager at the Salinas Valley municipal dump in California, points to salad greens that still have two weeks before their sell-by date. ‘Some loads ... look very fresh,’ Zuniga says. ‘We question, wow, why is this being tossed?’ ”
Photo Credit: Allison Aubrey; NPR
Source: NPR

I recently watched a short documentary (“Why does almost half of America’s food go to waste?”  June 16, 2015), produced by NPR and shown on PBS News Hour on how much produce is wasted in the United States. A large percentage, approximately 40 per cent of the food produced, never makes it to store shelves, either because consumers demand “perfect-looking” fruits and vegetables or it has a sell-by date that suggest to consumers the produce is insufficiently fresh. Some of it is donated to food banks, but the majority is destroyed.

I found this newsworthy, for I knew that supermarkets and restaurants, for example, had to throw out fruits and vegetables that were no longer fresh, but I had not known that large farms threw out produce only because it would not meet shoppers’ expectations.  

In a corresponding article in NPR (“Landfill Of Lettuce: Why Were These Greens Tossed Before Their Time? (June 16, 2015)” Allison Aubrey writes about America’s salad bowl, the Salinas Valley of California, where an estimated 70 per cent of American salad greens are grown. She visited the municipal dump, where perfectly good salad greens were evident.
At the dump, we caught up with Operations Manager Cesar Zuniga as a dump truck pulled in. It was filled to the brim with salads and other waste from nearby farms. "This one looks like a mixed load," Zuniga says. As it tipped its load, out tumbled a 15-foot heap of greens. And a lot of it looked crisp and ready to eat.
The Salinas Valley is known as America's salad bowl. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that farmers here and elsewhere around the country may over-plant by about 10 percent. "Some loads ... look very fresh," Zuniga says. "We question, wow, why is this being tossed?"
Zuniga says the load that arrived on this day is pretty typical. "This is what we see through the spring and fall months: We see a lot of food waste from the salad processing plants," he says. As we step closer to the dumped load, Zuniga picks up a bag of salad and looks at the sell-by date stamped on the package.
"What ended up here was good for [another] two weeks or so," Zuniga says.
So, why were these salad greens dumped?
We called Taylor Farms, the brand name on the bags we saw at the dump. It's one of the big salad processors in the area. In an email, Mark Campion, president of Taylor Farms Retail, told us that the "primary reason" that salad gets disposed of is that it gets too close to its "code date" — what consumers think of as the sell-by date.
"If we overrun a particular product ... it might not have enough code date for the customer to receive it," Campion said.
The bags we saw at the dump still had almost two weeks before reaching the sell-by date. But that was probably not long enough to ship them and get them onto store shelves, because grocery chains need plenty of time to sell the products while they're still fresh. "Most [grocery store] customers require 10-11 days of useable code date upon arrival at their distribution center," explains Campion.
The results are clear, Heather Hansman writes in Smithsonian:
Every year in the United States, six billion pounds of ugly fruits and veggies are wasted because they don’t meet visual standards. The unused produce sucks up 20 gallons of water per pound as it grows and releases methane as it rots in landfills after it’s been rejected. Because we’re judgmental about what we eat, all of those resources are being wasted along the food chain. 
There are some possible solutions, which do not address the issue initial source of food waste (we will discuss this issue shortly), but further down the food-distribution chain, the supermarkets, where most of us purchase food. An article in Time says that France has passed a law, which goes into effect in July 2016, making it illegal for supermarkets to discard food that is good and edible for human consumption.
A recently passed law in France will make it illegal for supermarkets to throw away food that is still edible. Starting in July 2016, French supermarkets that otherwise would have tossed out foods at or near their expiration dates—and that sometimes poured bleach on them to discourage dumpster divers from salvaging them—will be obligated to give the items to charity or farms (for animal feed) or face the possibility of fines and even jail time.
Arash Derambarsh, the French politician who rallied support for the new law, said that it was “scandalous and absurd” that so much food is wasted, often purposefully, and he hopes that the legislation sets a precedent that’s followed globally. As nutrition, environmental, and personal finance experts have noted, many food expiration dates are confusing, overly cautious, or both, and the result is that plenty of perfectly edible food (and money) is wasted. It’s been estimated that $160 billion worth of food in the U.S. alone is never actually eaten.
Would such a law work in Canada? in the United States? We are world-class food wasters, says David Mertl in Yahoo News’ blog, Daily Brew (May 26, 2015):
“North America is probably the worst of any place,” Herb Barbolet of Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Sustainable Community Development, told Yahoo Canada. “The estimates are anywhere from 40 to 60 per cent but it’s very hard to really tie that down because it goes all the way from waste on the primary producer to waste on the consumer in the kitchen and everything in between.”
A 2010 report by Value Chain Management International so far seems to be the only effort to quantify food waste in Canada. An updated version released last year estimated the annual cost at $31 billion, up from $27 billion four years earlier thanks largely to better information. But that figure is based on quantifiable data, the report warns, and the true value could be as high as $100 billion if a UN Food and Agricultural formula is used that includes all the various costs that go into food production and distribution, such as energy, land, labour and machinery.
Consumers – we individual Canadians – account for 47 per cent of the waste. Some estimates value the food we toss out at about $1,000 per household each year.
In the U.S. it is an estimated $1,600 per year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. For the two nations, that is an average of  between $20 and $30 a week per household, which is a small percentage of an average household’s food budget. Thus, the waste on an individual basis does not seem that high; of course, most people and families make efforts not to waste food, which is more often food in our fridge that has gone beyond being edible. Equally important, families and individuals will participate in compost programs, particularly in municipalities that have curbside collection of kitchen and yard waste.

This is a positive environmental effect, and it also makes us feel as if we are helping our planet’s survival, and doing good in some way, particularly in light of the fact that citizens of the world currently face so many more-important and -pressing problems, many of which today seem irresolvable. So, we do what we can, what is within our ability to do. The consumption of food is an emotional issue, for the very reason that it is tied in to our survival. And wasting it seems is, well, so wasteful. So sinful.

Given that supermarkets do make efforts to donate food that is still edible but near the date of expiry, they are doing their fair share. Moreover, concerning both large supermarkets and small fruit-and-vegetable stores, I am actually impressed and quite happy about the kind and variety of produce I see in store shelves. I suspect that the distribution network is quite sophisticated and generally works well. Can it be improved? Yes, in that all systems can be improved. But, it is a matter of small improvements, I suspect.

This leads us back to the source, to why farms discard a large percentage of edible fruits and vegetables. The problem, if one is to be found, is our human expectations of what food ought to look like, and, in this regard, whether we can accept the irregular shapes found in many imperfect fruits and vegetables. Can we learn to accept what we have for decades been taught not to? Can we learn that how fruits and vegetables look—in their misshapen appearance— does not influence their taste or nutritional value? Perhaps this might also lower the price of produce.

Even so, this might not be as easy as it initially sounds: price alone is insufficient to persuade consumers to change their ingrained purchasing habits. Either through the process of cultural conditioning or through an evolutionary and genetic sense of needing conformity and nearness to perfection (correlating with the aesthetics of beauty), we might reject store-bought produce that fails to meet our expectations of mathematical symmetry and beauty. This is who we have become, and it is not so much a matter of assigning blame as to find an explanation, a reason, to understand what is currently taking place in our brains and how we make human decisions.

This does not suggest that future generations might not view such matters in a different way.