Got Food Waste? There's an Accounting Standard for That

Turn to the nation's most objective and informative daily environmental news resource to learn how the United States and key players around the world are responding to the environmental...

By Andrea Vittorio

June 6 — The farm-to-fork movement now includes food that never makes it onto a fork, thanks to a new standard that helps countries and companies account for the estimated one-third of all food that gets lost or wasted along the way.

Food loss and waste cost the global economy about $940 billion in 2012, according to figures from the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

“Waste is underutilization of an asset. That can apply to food or anything else,” said Kai Robertson, who helped write the world's first voluntary standard for quantifying and reporting on food loss and waste as lead adviser for the World Resources Institute. “Whether it's a retailer, restaurant or food processor, nobody ever went into business just to buy something and throw it away.”

Food loss also exacerbates hunger and malnutrition and carries a significant environmental impact: if lost and wasted food were a country, it would be the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter on the planet behind China and the United States.

The food loss and waste protocol—unveiled June 6 at the Global Green Growth Forum in Copenhagen—was developed in part by WRI, the same group that played a key role in standardizing greenhouse gas emissions reporting years ago. Some of its many partners include the FAO and the Consumer Goods Forum, which has pledged to halve the amount of food wasted by its members by 2025, using the new standard to track progress.

Measuring and Managing

Governments and businesses often don't know how much food is wasted and lost or where it occurs.

Part of the problem is a lack of common language for talking about food waste. Are only edible parts counted? What about bones, rinds and pits or stones?

The standard lets users decide what goes into their food waste inventories depending on what their goals are: improving food security (just edible parts) or avoiding emissions as food rots in landfills (both food and its inedible parts).

Measuring food waste and loss means companies such as British supermarket chain Tesco can do a better job managing it. Tesco became the first retailer in the U.K. to publish third party-assured food waste data for its own operations in 2014.

“From day one, we’ve taken a farm-to-fork approach,” Mark Little, head of food waste reduction at Tesco, said on a call with reporters. Little said “publishing data for our own operations has allowed us to identify food waste hotspots and take action to tackle these.”

“Being transparent about the levels of waste has also helped us to raise awareness of the issue amongst our suppliers, our colleagues and our customers,” he said.

Search for Savings

Today, “transparency with the public about food waste rates tends to be very limited,” said JoAnne Berkenkamp, a Natural Resources Defense Council advocate who specializes in food-waste prevention and food rescue.

Once businesses start tracking their waste, Berkenkamp said, the return on investment can be “huge.”

Those that use software from LeanPath, for example, can reduce food waste by up to half and save between 2 and 6 percent on food purchases. For the buffet at the MGM Grand hotel and casino in Las Vegas, that amounted to an average of $7,500 a month in savings, according to a LeanPath case study .

Food waste can also be a good proxy for corporate efficiency, Jonas Kron, who directs shareholder advocacy at Trillium Asset Management, said. This year, Trillium filed a first-of-its-kind shareholder resolution asking Whole Foods Market to report on food waste.

The proposal did not receive enough votes to pass at the company's annual meeting in March, but Whole Foods has agreed to a petition to cut back on waste, and potentially generate new revenue streams, by testing sales of so-called “ugly” produce.

Consumers Caring More

The ugly produce campaign, popularized by French supermarket giant Intermarché, is one sign of increased attention on food waste.

Food waste reduction and management showed up for the first time in the D.C.-based National Restaurant Association’s annual forecast of food and menu trends for 2016. Laura Abshire, who leads the association's work on energy and environmental policy, said it's partly because consumers are caring more.

“A lot of consumers now want the restaurants they eat at to align with their own values,” she told Bloomberg BNA.

The majority of food waste by weight occurs at consumer-facing businesses and homes, according to ReFED, a group working on a roadmap to reduce food waste in the U.S. A key factor contributing to waste at home is confusion over sell-by or best-by date labels on foods, which are not consistent from state-to-state or even manufacturer-to-manufacturer.

Legislation ( H.R. 5298 , S. 2947 ) recently introduced in Congress would establish a national standard for food date labeling. Among those that have lined up in support are General Mills and Nestlé, which has set a zero-waste-to-landfill goal for all of its factories.

“Standardizing date labeling is a practical and commonsense approach to giving consumers the information they need to help extend this effort all the way to their own kitchens,” Paul Grimwood, chairman and chief executive officer of Nestlé USA, said in a statement.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrea Vittorio in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at