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Opinion

How Ottawa can address food waste

By Simon Somogyi and Maria Corradini      

Mandatory date labelling on all food products sold in Canada could be simplified, and date-marking options could be limited to two: expiration dates and 'best before' labels.

Understanding how food deteriorates and the potential risks associated to different foods can help us make safe decisions in terms of what can be eaten, or what can be diverted, and how, write Simon Somogyi and Maria Corradini of the University of Guelph. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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Almost 60 per cent of all food produced in Canada is wasted every year.

That’s according to a recent study from Value Chain Management and Second Harvest. While that headline grabbed media attention, the results of the study deserve further examination.

Yes, 58 per cent of all the food that is produced in Canada is wasted, but the study mentions that almost 40 per cent is unavoidable waste—peels, husks, bones, and shrinkage that comes from cooking food.

Ever notice how much smaller that steak is after you take it off the barbecue? There’s not much we can do about that, and no one wants to eat bones and peels. But with the right processes, much of that could be extracted to provide additives to industries, such as the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries as well as the food industry for food fortification, or even turned into energy.

Across the country, there are many of these types of circular initiatives, including a collaboration between the City of Guelph and County of Wellington in Ontario.

Really, 18 per cent of all food that is produced in Canada is wasted, according to the study, and we should be doing something about reducing that type of waste. But is it possible to bring that percentage to zero? It’s unlikely when we, as consumers—and the food supply chain itself—don’t have the time to change our ways. But food is programmed by nature to spoil, so as time elapses, its quality and safety are reduced. Quality losses, although they might imply a loss in nutritional value or a not very pleasurable eating experience, are not fatal. However, microbial spoilage, due to the growth of bacteria and moulds, can have serious health implications.

Expiration dates, though confusing, can provide some guidelines. Products carrying “use by” dates are more prone to microbial spoilage than those carrying “best by” dates. Rotating products in your fridge to consume the oldest first is a good strategy to reduce waste. Cooking produce that is showing early signs of deterioration extends its usefulness and ensures its safety.

Understanding how food deteriorates and the potential risks associated to different foods can help us make wise and safe decisions in terms of what can be eaten, or what can be diverted, and how.

Interestingly, we learned from the study that, in contrast to previous observations that identified consumers as the main cause of food waste, most food waste happens at the processing and manufacturing part of the food supply chain.

It’s easy to point the finger at the food industry, but, as consumers, we are partly to blame. We want to buy impeccable foods, are constantly looking for bargains, and may be prone to over-shop. Much of what ends up in our bins as it spoils is essentially money being tossed in the garbage. “Buy what you need” is the mantra, but we go to big-box grocery stores and stock up because it’s cheap. Our demand as consumers for perfection in the apples, pears, or lettuces that we buy, and processed foods we eat, has a large impact on the choices that the industry puts in front of us.

But government has a part to play, in policy and regulation.

Mandatory date labelling on all food products sold in Canada could be simplified, and date-marking options could be limited to two: expiration dates and “best before” labels.

Explanation of these terms could be added to the packaging to inform consumers about food safety in an effort to reduce the waste that happens from discarded “best before” food.

Secondly, government could provide incentives to reduce “unavoidable” food waste. Companies wishing to invest in machinery and technology that takes unavoidable waste such as husks, peels, or bones and turns them into ingredients for food or other allied industries could be given subsidies, rebates, or tax relief. This would not only reduce waste, but incentivize the creation of new industries, which could have a significant positive impact on our economy and make Canada a global leader in reusable food waste.

So let’s talk about food waste. Let’s not just point the finger at parts of the food industry. Let’s also point the finger at ourselves and our pursuit of the idea of buying with our eyes and “getting a good deal.” Let’s repurpose what we cannot save. Let’s create industries that can take what we can’t use and turn it into things that other industries can use. But let’s get real. We must put our health first and balance the ideas of feeding ever more hungry people in a safe, nutritional, equitable way that also reduces waste and keeps our food industry profitable.

Simon Somogyi is the Arrell chair in the business of food and faculty member at University of Guelph. Maria Corradini is the Arrell chair in food quality and associate professor at the University of Guelph.

The Hill Times

Disclosure: The licence to share this op-ed widely was purchased after its publication date. All op-eds that appear in The Hill Times, including this one, pass through the editorial-oversight process, which includes fact-checks and edits for style, grammar, and punctuation. Editorial is not involved in the licensing process.
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