5 Causes of Food Waste – Before It Reaches Your Plate

causes of food waste

There’s a growing movement of people who want to reduce food waste in their own homes.

But what about the food that gets wasted before it even reaches our plates? Before it gets the chance to feed the millions of hungry families in the UK?

The Top 5 Causes of Food Waste

We’ve uncovered the biggest reasons for food waste that the supermarkets don’t want you to know about. Plus, we have some handy hints on how you can help.

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1. Left to Rot in the Fields

Picture a sunny, wholesome country scene. Like something out of an advert for organic apple juice – long rows of trees heavy with fruit. Sunlight glinting through the leaves.

Now pan down a bit to see what the ground looks like beneath those trees. If this dreamy orchard is anything like the ones that supply supermarkets, the soil isn’t visible. It’s buried under a carpet of discarded fruit.

Pickers are trained to reject fruit for a variety of superficial reasons. The colour might be uneven, or there might be a nose-shaped knob near the stem.

None of these flaws has any effect on flavour. But growers know about supermarkets’ strict cosmetic standards. So it isn’t worth their time to pack and ship anything that wouldn’t win a fruity beauty pageant.

There is little hard data on how much food wastage there is from the fields. But it doesn’t take many visits to commercial farms to see how widespread the problem is.

One potato farmer estimates that he leaves 25% of his harvest in the fields due to imperfections. What a way to treat our staple starch!

causes of food waste - left to rot in the field

2. Drops in Demand

Even if you don’t happen to have a degree in economics, you’ve probably heard of the concept of supply and demand. Simply put, the price of a product varies over time depending on how much people want it.

This variability looks clean-cut on a graph. Real life however, tells a different story. Supply and demand is about as predictable as the weather on a spring day in London. Market fluctuations are especially dangerous for farmers.

If lots of people want a given fruit or vegetable during the planting season, farmers are likely to plant a lot of it. What if that demand dries up by the time harvest rolls around?

It will leave farmers with a bumper crop that won’t sell. When supermarkets and distributors don’t buy it, farmers have little choice other than to send it to landfill.

This might be the most tragic of all causes of food waste – surplus produce that has nothing wrong with it. Not even the superficial flaws that the supermarkets reject.

That flawless fruit and veg would look lovely on the plates of the 8 million food-insecure people in the UK. Sadly the only mouth it feeds is the one on a waste compactor.

oversupply of cucumbers

3. Damaged During Shipping

Despite advancements in refrigerated lorries and flash-freezing, transporting food is tricky. By the time our food reaches us from its far-flung origins, all manner of things could have gone wrong.

Someone could set the temperature settings on their high-tech lorry incorrectly. This would cause the food to melt, rot or develop freezer burn.

On a particularly bumpy road, fruits can knock into each other and develop bruises. And you know the supermarkets aren’t having any of that.

Even the weather — that fickle mistress — can have a dramatic effect on the success of a shipment. If it ends up being hotter than expected on shipping day, produce can wilt to nothing by the time it reaches its destination.

Of course, this problem would be alleviated if we chose locally produced food and didn’t rely on imported produce. Until then, global demands ask farmers to ship their produce far from home and suffer the potential consequences.

bruised bananas

4. Graded out at the Packhouse

Produce may survive its perilous journey from the farm. But there’s no guarantee that it won’t be wasted when it reaches its next destination. Next in line is the packhouse, a processing facility before distribution.

The packhouse functions as a kind of produce purgatory. Fruit and veg awaits its final fate; coming under the scrutiny of inspectors.

They may pick out a few flaws that developed during shipping, or that the farmers missed on the field. This could mean that they summarily reject the whole shipment.

Some of that rejected fruit goes on to feed cattle, but none feeds a single hungry human. A shocking waste that should be criminal.

Not even the blessing of the packhouse inspector will necessarily prevent food wastage. The produce still has to go through the dangers of long-distance food transportation all over again. This time on its final journey – the trip to the supermarket.

reasons for food waste - graded out at the packhouse

5. Thrown out of the Supermarket

Perhaps you’ve heard the sales adage ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’. This saying was coined in the 1950s by Sir Jack Cohen, founder of Tesco.

It sums up the modus operandi of all the supermarkets that spawned in the following decades. You’ve seen that philosophy in action if you’ve ever tried to dig through a mountain of apples at the supermarket.

Supermarkets believe that customers prefer to see full shelves and big piles of produce. They routinely order more than they can sell — all to complete an image of first-world bounty.

Naturally, a large proportion of this food becomes overripe. Some supermarkets, independent shops or small chains move the ripe fruits to a bargain bin. Shoppers who aren’t afraid of a few spots can pick up great deals.

The majority of the big chains can’t be bothered to spare the labour required to repackage squishy fruit. The overripe supermarket produce, once a member of the elite upper echelon, then joins its rejected brethren in landfill.

supermarket vegetable display

It’s Not All Bad News

After learning about all the causes of food waste, you’re probably feeling as riled as we are. Luckily, we’re not the only ones getting angry about food waste.

Restaurants, startups, and even big-name supermarkets are starting to get serious about food waste.

In 2016, Asda was the first UK supermarket to begin selling wonky veg. Their boxes of unloved, seasonal vegetables sell for £3.50 and can feed a family of four for a week.

Since then, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, the Co-op and Aldi have all followed suit. Wonky veg boxes are an affordable way to help prevent one of the main reasons for food waste – unnecessary beauty standards.

Offering ‘ugly’ produce lines that focus on charmingly wonky fruit and veg is set to become the norm. It’s absurd that it isn’t already.

What’s wrong with eating carrots with two legs and voluptuously deformed aubergines — the cute giant pandas of the food waste cause? It might even get fussy kids eating more veg!

imperfect strawberries

Tesco have also laid out plans to ditch best before dates to help reduce food waste. Best before dates mean the date before which the food is at its best.

Used on fresh fruit and veg, they’re completely unnecessary and we should be allowed to use our own judgement on when a food is no longer safe to eat.

Ditching best before dates means that supermarkets no longer have to ditch perfectly edible food. (Best before dates are not to be confused with use by dates, used on mainly meat and dairy products.)

Companies are also springing up that handle the redistribution of unwanted, edible food. Charities, schools, homeless hostels and other needy organisations benefit from free, fresh food.

Volunteers rescue food from supermarkets and food outlets and redistribute it. Staff and volunteers at the receiving end then use it to make healthy, hot meals for those in need. What could be better?

Fruit that really is too ripe to eat can also be rescued. Brands such as Snact turn overripe fruit into fruit jerky. Cotchel juices are made from rescued fruit. Reliquum turn surplus apples, plums and apricots into amazing gins.

There’s even beer made from leftover bread. Toast Ale is a firm favourite at the end of a busy week for us!

apples at orchard

How You Can Help Reduce the Causes of Food Waste

You don’t have to be a supermarket or brand to help prevent these causes of food waste.

There are plenty of ways you can help reduce the food that goes to waste before its even reached our kitchens:

Choose wonky veg

The more we use our purchasing power to demand curvy cucumbers and imperfect pears, the more supermarkets will offer them.

For years supermarkets have blamed us consumers. They’ve claimed that it’s our beauty standards that mean we don’t want knobbly veg, not theirs. Prove them wrong!

Buy directly from the farm

Farmers’ markets are great for finding locally grown, seasonal produce. Produce that hasn’t had to go through the ordeal of travelling to the packhouse or supermarket.

Produce that is allowed to be individual and a bit wonky!

vegetables at farmers' market

Buy Rescued Produce

Sign up to a subscription box scheme like OddBox. OddBox rescues produce that would otherwise be going to waste.

They pack the reclaimed goodies into boxes and ship them to subscribers in South London. Your salads and stir-fries will taste even better with the added zest of rescue!

There are similar schemes in other areas so do a search to find one near you.

Opt for brands that are turning surplus food into tasty sauces, drinks and snacks like Rubies and Snact.

Volunteer at food redistribution charities.

Or if you’re an organisation that needs help, contact a charity such as FareShare or FoodCycle to see how they can help you.

Ignore best before dates

Best before dates indicate when a food was best, it doesn’t mean that the food is inedible.

At home you can take steps to reduce the food you throw away by using your own sense of smell and eyesight. If a potato has a few eyes, cut them out and use the rest.

If a bag of apples are past their best before date but look edible, then they are. Fruit and veg are only inedible if they’re completely covered in mould.

How many reasons for food waste will you work on?