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Food wastage: A national concern

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Oxfam has calculated that close to 14-million South Africans go to bed hungry every night in South Africa. While these vast numbers of South Africans crave food they cannot access, the country somehow, manages to dump food valued at R60-billion.

A South African-based scientific and technology research, development and implementation organisation the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) undertook research on food waste, its causes and impact on the South African economy.

Dr Suzan Oelofse principal researcher and research group leader for waste food development at CSIR says that food wastage is an international problem that started gaining momentum in 2010 when research was done trying to quantify the magnitude of food waste globally. As a result, Dr Oelofse and her team started looking at what South Africa’s contribution to food wastage problem is.

“In that regard we used a similar formula that was used for the international quantification, but we applied that to the local south African conditions and through those calculations we estimate that a south Africa generates between 10 million tons of food waste per annum in the outer food supply chain,” Dr Oelofse explained.

In other words waste is generated from agriculture through to processing, packaging, distribution to the consumption stages.

The bulk of the food waste occurs in the pre-consumer stages that would typically be during packaging and processing and about 4-5% occur at post-consumer level so that would be in the household kitchen or at food establishments where food is prepared.

“The reason for the food wastage during packaging and distribution is quite often if food is aesthetically not 100% appealing it will not even be packaged for human consumption and quite often also during the cutting process to get the food into portion sizes or in preparation for processing there are some off cuts that ends up as waste,” Dr Oelofse went further.

“So wastage occurs throughout the supply chain; our poor road conditions also contribute in transport one tries to maintain a cold transport for the food and if the cold chain is broken that will obviously lead to a shorter shelf life and to wastage in the end; but also poor road conditions contribute to bruising to our fruits and our vegetables and bruised fruit also ends up being wasted.”

Distribution to the poor

There are some companies in South Africa that distributes the food to food banks and some other charities, but there is a limited time frame that they have available to do that and it will only be after the food reaches its sell by date that the company will consider distributing it.

“The product must then reach the consumer before it reaches its expiry date so that is a very small window of opportunity for getting the food to the less fortunate and putting the logistics in place to manage this is quite taxing, but there are some companies that are doing quite well at this,” Dr Oelofse continued.

Pick n Pay for example decided to create 20 new jobs for mainly previously unemployed young people every working day until 2020, which should bring the total to 5,000 every year. These jobs are being created in the food supply chain process in order to ensure that a limited amount of food is wasted before it reaches the consumer.

During her research Dr Oelofse says that she has spoken to some people at the food bank doing the distributions and they have stated that they do face some challenges in the sense that they do not know up front what types of food they will be receiving which makes it difficult to plan the logistics around distribution further down the line.

With regards to foods coming from restaurants, if food was served to a human being it cannot be served to other human beings if it wasn’t eaten and so therefore that food gets wasted.

“There are other limitations as to what you can divert as to pig farms because again if the food was served to human beings then as a health precaution it will not be served to pigs that could enter that back into the human food supply,” Dr Oelofse mentions.

“There are also limitations in food that have been kept warm over a long period of time for instance when it was served as a buffet to take that food and donate it because there are always risks that the food may go off in the process and you can’t reheat food that have been kept warm for a long period of time.”

Dr Oelofse says that there are limitations but she is aware that companies are becoming more and more aware of the fact that South Africa is facing a food shortage and that there is a growing population that is in need of food security.

Consumer price

“We must also realise that by wasting food we are also impacting on food security because we are driving the prices of food up which then makes it less accessible to the poor,” Dr Oelofse expressed.

There are many things that people can do to curb food wastage. Consumers should first of all think about what they buy, where they buy it, how much they prepare, how you plan meals. Furthermore, if you buy food that is in season you reduce the time for food storage therefore it reaches the consumer quicker and the consumption is better.

“If you eat food that is out of season then there is a whole chain of events required to make sure that the food is available throughout the year,” says Dr Oelofse.

“It must be kept cool in freezers, it must be ripened artificially and that also impacts in the end on the wastage of food that occurs.”

The impact that food wastage has in the economy at this time is estimated at over R61 billion per annum and that is equal to about 2% of the national GDP.

“If you look at food wastage it is equal to 30% of our agricultural production so it means that a lot of food gets produced that goes through the whole supply chain and in the end it ends up as waste,” Dr Oelofse added

“Companies are aware of what they waste because it impacts on their profit margins so they would try to reduce food wastage as much as possible, but in general I would say that there are some retailers that have a policy to keep their shelves full all the time irrespective of how much gets bought and that contributes to wastage,” Dr Oelofse further explains.

She suggests that retailers and supermarkets should stock their shelves with only the volumes of food that you know will have a short turn-around time and that will be bought in order to reduce wastage.

Also buy ensuring that the cold chain is maintained during the supply chain that is important.

Dr Oelofse says that raising awareness amongst consumers will also make a big difference.

“Currently we see that quite often supermarkets don’t make use of very small packages of fruits and vegetables, it is typically prepared for a bigger household and therefore the smaller households will be forced to buy say a kilogram of apples whereas they are not necessarily going to eat all of that so if there can be smaller packages aimed at the smaller household sizes that would help,” Dr Oelofse explained.

Also encouraging people to buy more than what they necessarily need is also contributing to waste.

“We see that often when food is coming to the sell by date then we will see often buy two for the price of one which entice people to buy more than what they can consume and in the end it shifts the waste from the retailer to the consumer,” Dr Oelofse further mentioned.

“There is quite a need to raise awareness amongst people even when people go shopping about how much food we waste and how we can reduce the food wastage,” Dr Oelofse concluded.

VOC (Umarah hartley)


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