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Flanders takes action to reduce food losses

Every year approximately 2 million tonnes of food and organic waste streams are wasted in Flanders. By comparison: food companies in Belgium produce approximately 20 to 25 million tonnes of food annually. Approximately 75% of this is produced in Flanders (Source: Federation Food Industries (FEVIA) Sustainability Report 2011). These 2 million tonnes include pure food losses as well as so-called secondary streams or fluxes, the non-edible portion of food products such as peels and bones which nevertheless can be used for other applications such as, for instance, animal feed, compost or energy generation.

The consumer discards a tenth of these 2 million tonnes – or +/- 200,000 tonnes – in the rubbish bin. This analysis demonstrates that food losses can be mapped out across the entire chain, from farmer to consumer.

The problem of food losses became increasingly relevant in recent years in a context of, inter alia:

  • The volatility of commodity and food prices.
  • The ethical problems associated with the availability of food, now and in future.
  • Environmental pressures, to which the consumption of food contributes to a large extent.

Study of food losses from a chain perspective

OVAM recently investigated the issue of food losses. To this end, it examined the issue of food losses across the entire chain in consultation with, inter alia, the food industry, the distribution sector and the agricultural industry, represented respectively by FEVIA, Federation for Commerce and Services (COMEOS) and the Farmers’ Union. The study used data available from agriculture, the food industry, distribution, food services and consumers. Intensive calculation led to the following results for Flanders:

 

In total, it concerns 1,936,000 to 2,290,000 tonnes of food losses which, however, were largely valorised as secondary streams. The causes are very diverse. In the primary production, food losses are mainly attributable to fluctuating weather conditions and the accompanying sharp fluctuations in food prices. In the food industry, the cause rests mainly with errors (for instance, in packaging) and the start-up and shut-down of production lines lead to losses. During the distribution of food, the causes are shelf availability, the requirements of consumers and errors in the handling of food. Food services cause food losses by serving portions that are too large. Among consumers, there are a number of factors that can lead to food losses, such as insufficient knowledge of expiration date information or mishandling of packages.

Consumers throw 85,000 tonnes of food in the rubbish bin. Of that, 34,000 tonnes – or 5.6 kg per individual per year – are still edible and thus avoidable. In addition, consumers discard 71,000 to 150,000 tonnes of food with the VFG waste (Vegetable, Fruit and Garden).

High revaluation of food loss 

Food loss can best be avoided as much as possible in every link of the chain, from producer to consumer. When food loss does occur, the percentage should be revalued as much as possible. In this, the preference is always for human consumption through distribution to food banks or through treatment or reprocessing of food loss. After that, we opt for the following order: application to animal feed, base materials for industry, fermentation or compost, incineration with energy recovery and landfilling. Because landfilling is prohibited in Flanders, this final step is eliminated.

Food loss that ends up in the non-recyclable rubbish bag (34,000) is burnt and thus is entirely lost for human or animal consumption. Food loss in the VFG fraction is composted or fermented. In addition, Flemish citizens participate on a mass scale in home composting and a portion of the food waste go to animal feed (such as, for instance, free-range chickens).

For the other chains (food industry, distribution and food services), it is extremely difficult to separate the avoidable from the inevitable fraction and to identify the reallocation of food waste. It is for this reason that FEVIA is working on a detailed investigation for the food industry.

Food loss in Flanders is limited in comparison to the rest of Europe

Across the globe, approximately 25 percent of food produced is thrown away without being eaten. The British discard +/- 70 kg of food and the Dutch +/- 51 kg. Flemish citizens on average discard only 25 to 37 kg. While international comparison remains difficult, Flanders does perform better than the European average.

Food loss in Flanders can still be reduced. To this end, a number of feasible and specific measures have been proposed.

  • First of all, innovations in packaging can make a major contribution. They extend the shelf-life of food products and make them less vulnerable to damage. Packaging, to be sure, also has an impact on the environment, but from a materials perspective, a package that extends the shelf-life of a product but has a high environmental impact is sometimes justifiable.
  • Food banks and social service grocers can provide a valuable contribution to preventing foodstuff from not being used for human consumption. However, they can indeed use support with regard to food safety, quality and logistics. The Flemish authorities will examine how food banks and social service grocers can be assisted. Also vegetable and fruit auctions, active players in social food distribution, are investigating how to improve the flow of vegetables and fruit to food distribution. The social economy sector also sees opportunities for social employment in the reduction of food losses.
  • Furthermore, expiration date information plays an extremely important role in food loss. Improvement is possible at every link of the chain. The producer can improve the placement of ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ on its products; distribution can inform the customer correctly; and finally, consumers must handle food with greater awareness and correctly interpret expiration date information.
  • Some food chains in Flanders represent large volumes of, for example, potatoes, apples and pears. For these streams, it is worthwhile to analyse in detail where production losses occur and how they can be avoided.
  • Also food loss in fisheries must continue to be addressed.

Based on this study, “Food wastage from a chain perspective”, the Government of Flanders has a package of 25 ongoing or planned measures to reduce food loss and to improve valorisation of secondary streams or fluxes. With this package of measures in place, the Government of Flanders is committing to the ambitious European target to cut food losses in half by 2020. In doing so, Flanders is definitively positioning itself among the trendsetters in Europe in pursuit of a sustainable food chain. The objective is to become waste neutral by 2030.

For more information:

Public Waste Agency of Flanders (OVAM)
www.ovam.be

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