November 7, 2019

Cutting down on postharvest food waste

Before reaching the processing stage, fruit has a long road to travel. Unfortunately, much of it is lost along the way.

In a Fruit Logistica 2019 presentation aimed at helping processors and vendors understand how postharvest losses occur, Oliver Huesmann, CEO of Fruit Consulting in Spain, described the journey from field to factory.

When the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations was founded in 1945, it developed a mandate to reduce food losses and waste. Yet in 2018, it was estimated that one-third of food produced globally is not eaten. Most produce is lost postharvest, and in poorer countries, up to 40% of food produced never reaches the population. With 800 million people starving or hungry globally, that extra food could go a long way in addressing this hunger. The industry has a responsibility to understand where those losses are occurring, and how to reduce them, Huesmann challenged the crowd gathered at his talk.

Proper purchasing

Between the field and the point of sale, fruit encounters many obstacles. The three main points where losses occur are at harvest, at packaging and during transportation, but there are many other points where losses also occur, Huesmann said. The supply chain can include speculators who sometimes purchase more than they can sell. Unsold produce usually ends up going to waste, Huesmann said. Overproduction, inclement weather and the harvesting of overripe fruit are also problems that lead to food loss.

Beyond the point of sale, consumers waste product at home when they buy more than they need. In the grocery store, they tend to pass over fruit with marks and bruising, which leads to further waste. These are problems particular to industrialized countries, Huesmann said.

At the beginning of the chain, growers face challenges with regard to pricing.

“Many producers cannot make a living,” he said. “They always have to look for the cheapest production, the cheapest labor and how they can save money in production. Then supermarkets and wholesalers often play one producer against another.”

At the end of the growth cycle, farmers will try to harvest as economically and efficiently as possible, Huesmann said. Fruit must be picked, washed, sorted, graded, stored and transported. Damage at any one of these points can reduce shelf life and increase food waste.

Fruit needs to be harvested at the optimal time, he said. Typical mistakes at harvest time include mismanaging time, and using cheap, untrained laborers who don’t know how to properly handle fruit or aren’t available at crucial times. Overripe and unpicked fruit will be wasted.

Processing and packaging

In treatment and packaging operations there are many points where losses can occur as well, including during selection, emptying, washing, waxing and classification (by size and quality), Huesmann said.

“Selection, for instance, is very important because if we exclude the damaged fruit we prevent infection of healthy fruit,” Huesmann said.

To reduce losses these tasks must be done carefully and properly, and this requires trained staff.

During washing, waxing and sorting, product is usually transported using conveyor belts. It is necessary to inspect these belts regularly to make sure there are no sharp edges or rough edges that could damage product, he said.

Damage can occur during packaging as well. Not having suitable packaging machines can lead to knocks, cuts and falls.

The use of low-quality postharvest products, such as wax, can also lead to losses, Huesmann said. “Forty days in a container without this treatment is the worst case,” he said.

Untrained packers may make all sorts of mistakes that impact quality, said Huesmann, who pointed to damaged fruit, mislabeled product and improperly calibrated machinery as examples.

Fruit quality is impacted during transportation as well. “In the best case, we transport directly from the farmer to the point of sale or client,” Huesmann said. “But this is not always possible, so we have to plan our transport very well because in many cases transport costs are higher than the value of the raw product.”

Transit handling

Mistakes made in transportation include: not having sufficient means and time to transport, use of inappropriate transportation for product, faulty palletization, incorrect handling of the packaged product when loading and unloading and incorrect temperature settings.

In developing countries, Huesmann said the use of inappropriate trucks on bad roads causes excessive vibration that damages product.

Further down the chain, losses occur where expiration dates and proper packaging are not used. “Most farmers never communicate with their final customer,” Huesmann said. “This is why they don’t know what is happening in the market, what packaging they need, what size they need… Only the supermarket or the wholesaler communicate with the final customer.”

Consumers themselves need educating about postharvest loss. In industrialized countries, consumers have become used to low prices, Huesmann said. As a result, they no longer appreciate value.

“I will never waste an iPhone,” he said. “But a kilo of oranges is not expensive, so I waste it very easily.”

The most important path to waste reduction is knowledge, Huesmann said.

“We will not be able to plan without knowledge,” he said. “Planning and communication are the most important factors for well-functioning logistics throughout the supply chain.

“We have many possibilities to improve. And with this, we can also improve profits in our business. We also have a responsibility to prevent postharvest losses because so many people in the world are going hungry.”

— By Melanie Epp, contributing writer

MORE: How global food waste can be curtailed

Top photo — Fruit Consulting CEO Oliver Huesmann speaks during Fruit Logistica 2019 in Berlin, Germany. Photo: Melanie Epp