After decades of US lawmakers passing up opportunities to fight food waste on a national level, a concerted effort is beginning to emerge from parts of the private sector instead.
The front lines: Expiration-date labels and lumpy potatoes.
That Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, is involved in the effort to curb food waste means that the changes it enforces will have an outsized impact along supply chains and put pressure on competitors. One of the retail giant’s strategies—allowing the sale of fruits and vegetables that would normally be deemed too ugly for displays—has already conjured new brands from thin air.
Shoppers tooling down Walmart grocery aisles now encounter brands that package and sell ugly produce. The “Spuglies” brand markets misshapen potatoes and the “I’m Perfect” brand offers apples that have gone askew. These companies pushing misfit fruits and veggies into the mainstream give consumers a way to fight food waste with their wallets.
“We’re focused on making sure that customers are getting it at a value,” a Walmart spokesman said. “With suppliers, we’re talking about how do we get 100% of the harvest.”
Since it began tackling food waste within its own system in 2013, the retailer says it has diverted 82% of food that would have otherwise gone to landfills. That amounts to about 2 billion meals. According to ReFED, a food waste advocacy group, a 20% reduction in waste would reclaim the 1,250 calories per capita that goes into landfills each year. That’s enough to feed America’s food-insecure population three times over.
Expiry-date labeling rules have been a recurring topic in statehouses and Washington since the 1970s, when consumers first began demanding food manufacturers give them better information. But to this day ,no nationwide federal rule addresses the issue with any specificity or consistency. Meanwhile, many states have passed their own laws, but because they all require different information, a complicated patchwork of rules (pdf) that now blankets much of the US.
It’s become one of those rare issues on which the food industry, food system advocates, and Congressional lawmakers often find themselves on the same page.
But in face of policy inaction, some corporations, such as Walmart, have decided to make unilateral changes. The retailer is asking suppliers of its private-label brand to adopt a standardized “best if used by” label. The company’s vice president for food safety, Frank Yiannas, led that effort, which he said included having difficult conversations with suppliers to work through compliance with the standardization.
“I think people just do their labels differently,” Yiannas said. “So what that caused for us was obviously a lot of confusion.”
That’s easy to believe. Before Walmart decided to standardize, it found suppliers were using 47 different types of expiry-date labeling methods, Yiannas said. That meant bringing them all under one policy—from boxes of cereal to mustard and more—required patience and perseverance.
The change is sure to impact companies outside Walmart, as many of its suppliers work with multiple retailers (but gear their practices to suit their biggest customer, which is almost always Walmart). Yiannas said the company has not yet quantified how much the change will reduce food waste, but said even a small difference will make the move worthwhile.