War on Food Waste: Processors, retailers and consumers can reduce fresh-cut loss

It’s the fresh-cut conundrum.

When it comes to shrink and waste in fresh-cut produce, the industry is as much the answer as it is the problem.

“Fresh-cut is both a contributor to waste and a solution,” said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs for the Produce Marketing Association. “When a consumer or foodservice  operator buys fresh-cut, they have less waste. This is a value to the consumer, reduces plate costs to foodservice and reduces waste.

“Of course, in this case, there is greater waste at the processor end of the chain.”

There is also the matter of waste after the product leaves the processing plant – a path peppered with potential land mines in the form of cold chain preservation and handling every step of the way.

In 2013, USDA and EPA rolled out the U.S. Food Waste Challenge. The goal is to get producer groups, processors, manufacturers, retailers, communities and other government agencies to join in reducing food loss and waste, recovering food for human consumption and recycling discards to such uses as animal feed, composting and energy generation.

Operating Sustainably

The latter is exactly what Gills Onions is doing. One of the leading partners in the challenge, Gills’ multiple initiatives to reduce waste and operate more sustainably go back to 2008, said Sustainability Manager Laura Hamman.

“The major driver was to get rid of waste, to find other ways to dispose of the byproducts of our processing operation,” Hamman said. “We have to cut the peels and, in some cases, the outside layers of the onions to get to the products that we sell to our customers.”

That meant approximately 50 percent waste from each onion. The company can process up to a million pounds of onions in a single day between production for industrial, foodservice and retail customers. Its fresh-cut products include 7-oz. cups of diced onions and 1-lb. celery-onion mixes.

At that level of production, it doesn’t take much to do the math and realize why Gills was overwhelming the trash infrastructure available to it, Hamman said.

The solution? Its award-winning Waste-to-Energy Advanced Energy Recovery System. Since 2009, all of the company’s daily onion waste has been converted into a combination of renewable energy and cattle feed.

“We use it (the energy) on site to power two fuel cells and generate electricity,” Hamman said.

Where before, the company was taking 100 percent of its waste to the landfill, today it’s 0.7 percent.

Beyond that, Gills cools onions as soon as they come from the fields to extend shelf life and reduce shrink.

“When the time from cut to cool is reduced and the product can be processed in a timely manner, product quality is maintained (and) this helps maintain shelf life,” said Dan Vache, vice president of supply chain management for the United Fresh Produce Association.

Starting in the field

Taking it back a step, Vache said waste and shrink prevention actually starts at the farm.

“In the field, there are new leafy green varieties that produce a better product, which can improve harvest yields to reduce the amount of waste left in the field,” Vache said. “The industry has been using the ‘clean and core’ process at the field level to reduce the amount of product that is transported, so nearly the entire product taken out of the field is usable.”

Dominique Steiger, global segment manager for fungicides, vegetable and potato for Bayer CropScience in Germany, said controlling disease in the field is important for the grower – but also part of the company’s efforts to develop relationships with its food chain partners worldwide.

“Losses of horticulture crops due to fungal diseases or food spoilage during production, storage and transport can have a large impact on human food supplies and local economies,” Steiger said, noting that some “latent diseases” don’t surface at harvest.

“The food looks marketable, but could rot later in the packing house, during transportation, at storage and on the shelf,” Steiger said. “If the grower can protect the fruit from the development of these latent diseases already in the field, it will for sure benefit the food chain. A close collaboration between farmers, traders, processors, retailers and crop protection companies is absolutely crucial to significantly reduce the losses in the fresh-cut value chain.”

Refrigeration and packaging

Monitoring and maintaining proper temperature throughout the cold chain is the lifeblood of fresh-cut produce longevity. One of the points where temperature could be shored up is at the store level.

“If the product is properly merchandised – not overstocked in the display case so air flow is restricted, not placed above the load line in a display case … this helps achieve the intended shelf life for the consumer,” Vache said.

The USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) has received grants and in-kind support from the industry to study the best practices for maintaining temperature control at the retail level. Yaguang Luo, a research scientist for USDA-ARS in Maryland, explained that retail store displays are a frequent temperature abuse site.

“Many of the open refrigerated display cases do not provide sufficient temperature control conditions needed by fresh-cut produce,” she said. “Oftentimes, products placed in the front get warmed by ambient temperatures in the store, while those in the back may incur greater risk of freeze damage.”

Aiming to improve temperature control – and food quality and safety – USDA-ARS scientists focused on bagged salads in a study that showed temperatures in fact can vary significantly. Their recommendation? Install clear doors to insulate and appropriately circulate airflow throughout the displays.

Packaging also plays a role. New films and package designs can improve shelf life, Vache said, as does packaging technology. Pack size is also a factor at still another important level – the consumer’s.

“Smaller consumer packs limit the waste that takes place at the consumer level,” Vache said. “At some retail locations, when a club pack (multiple heads of romaine in one pack) is attractively priced, the consumer only sees a low price. But at the end of the day, it wastes away in the home refrigerator as the consumption is too slow and the shelf life has a limit.”

Just like everyone else who plays a part in the cold chain, consumers, too, need to be mindful of temperature control.

“In the summer months, the trunk of an automobile can get very warm, if not hot, and this impacts the shelf life and causes shrink,” Vache said. “This holds true at any point in the supply chain – at the back of the store or restaurant.

“Maintain the cold chain.”

— By Kathy Gibbons, contributing writer

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