An estimated 30-40% of the US food supply goes to waste each year, yet over 38 million Americans are experiencing food insecurity.

While consumers certainly contribute to the food waste problem, food manufacturers and suppliers have an important role to play. Whether it’s switching to packaging that better indicates food freshness or adopting innovative technologies, here are some strategies that help food companies do their part to reduce waste.

Improving labeling and packaging

Uncertainty about food safety and freshness sends a lot of food to the landfill unnecessarily. Between products with “use by,” “sell by,” and “best by” labels and those without any expiration dates at all, consumers are often confused about how long they can keep and store food before it becomes unsafe to eat. 

A recent study found that only 46% of consumers understood that “best if used by” labels mean that food will begin to go bad after the listed date, and only 24% understood “use by” to mean that food is no longer safe after the label date. Even after exposure to educational messaging, a significant portion of consumers still didn’t completely understand “best if used by” (37%) and “use by” (48%) labels.

These results suggest that, as long as consumers continue to misunderstand or confuse their meaning, expiration dates are ineffective at reducing waste. Perhaps a better way to discourage consumers from throwing out food prematurely is a clearer indication of when food is no longer usable. 

That’s why researchers have been working on packaging technology that detects spoiled food, using sensors that change color as food expires. Scientists from the Key Laboratory of Marine Materials have developed a color-changing material specifically for seafood. And researchers out of the University of New South Wales in Sydney are working on sensors for a variety of foods — the sensors turn blue when food is fresh, purple when food is starting to turn, and red when it’s no longer safe to eat. 

Applied to food packaging, these sensors would provide a more accurate, straightforward measure of food freshness than expiration dates and keep more food out of the landfill.

Supplier Catalog - ProvisurFinding a purpose for unused ingredients

One immediate solution to the food waste problem — and one that’s not dependent on new technologies — is upcycled foods.  

Upcycling creates new products out of imperfect ingredients, trimmings, and other leftovers that would normally go to waste. And, as awareness about food waste and its impact on the environment increases, upcycling is a growing trend that consumers are hungry for. 

After learning about upcycled foods, eight in 10 consumers said they would look for those products on the shelves. The addition of an Upcycled Certified food label boosted their intent to purchase. So producing upcycled products not only helps businesses use up otherwise discarded food — it can boost their profits, too. 

Plugging into emerging technologies

Digital systems like artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain have a lot of promise in the food industry. They can optimize operations, track food items as they move along the supply chain, and build trust and transparency with customers. They also help reduce food waste. 

In the event of a recall, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers may throw out unaffected products out of an abundance of caution. Traceability technologies can help companies pinpoint exactly which products were impacted to prevent safe food from going to the landfill.

AI-driven systems also benefit food waste reduction. By collecting and analyzing data, AI technologies recognize patterns and inform decision-making. In relation to reducing food waste, this data can help food manufacturers:

  • Better predict product demand and adjust accordingly (e.g., move more fresh food toward frozen products to avoid spoilage).
  • Cut down on the number of necessary food trials to minimize wasted ingredients.
  • Divert more unsold products to shelters, food banks, etc.
  • Minimize quality issues that produce unsellable products.
  • Prevent contamination and safety issues that lead to discarded products and ingredients.

While reducing food waste is a noble cause on its own, it also has several benefits for manufacturers. It aligns with sustainability initiatives, food safety priorities, and consumer demands. So there’s no time to waste in addressing the food waste challenge.