There's a lot more to be said about CBC's Walmart food waste coverage
The CBC’s Marketplace is focusing on retail food waste this week. Yesterday we heard from a former Walmart contractor that a ‘heartbreaking’ amount of food is trashed every day. Today, Marketplace reveals its findings from 12 days of sifting through Walmart dumpsters.
This is a great scoop for the CBC and I think this kind of coverage is just what is needed to bring light to a shameful problem. Food retail accounts for 10% of the food wasted in Canada. This is a small slice of the pie, but in absolute terms, it’s a substantial amount of food (it is, after all, a very big pie). These CBC stories can stand on their own, but I wanted to add some additional commentary and nuance based on some of my experience and research on food waste.
Marketplace found cartons of milk days ahead of their best-before date, and Parmesan cheese with months left before it needed to be thrown away.
Assuming these products are not contaminated or otherwise unsafe, this is troubling. Best-before dates on both of these products are largely unrelated to safety. A solid piece of Parmesan cheese can be safely stored for a very long time. Barring any cross-contamination in a retailer’s or consumer’s fridge, the worst that will happen is the growth of some mould, which is a quality, not a safety, issue, and will not cause someone harm.
Mevawala, formerly with one of the company’s Edmonton stores, says if a piece of fruit or vegetable didn’t look perfect, it had to be thrown in the trash.
Moreover, cosmetic imperfections are a reflection of arbitrary quality standards that are a large reason food is disposed of at the retail level. Retailers will claim that these arbitrary quality standards are the fault of consumers, but this is untrue. This is a marketing failure. There is demand for these products, they just need to be marketed correctly. Loblaws is beginning to dip their toe into this market segment with imperfect apples marketed under their No Name brand. This is also failure of retailers to capitalize on their own value-added departments. These cosmetically imperfect produce items, if not sold to consumers directly, should become part of value-added products in-store. Fruit salads, vegetable trays, pre-chopped vegetables, etc. could all be made from imperfect products.
Over the course of more than 12 visits to the stores, Marketplace staff repeatedly found produce, baked goods, frozen foods, meat and dairy products. Most of the food was still in its packaging, rather than separated for composting.
This quote highlights a significant issue with how retail food waste is often handled. In many cases retailers want to get ‘unsaleable’ goods (however they define that) off their shelves and our of their warehouse as quickly as possible. Typically this means disposing of it directly into their dumpsters or compactors. The above quote draws attention to several problems: all that organic material ends up in landfill where it is a significant source of methane; all that packaging is, to the dismay of brand owners, in-tact and visible to anyone willing to dip their nose into a dumpster or landfill; and that packaging, the majority of which is recyclable, also ends up in landfill.
Retailers regularly fail to take advantage of the services of depackagers. Depackagers, as the name implies, remove food from its packaging. They then send the food to anaerobic digestion, rendering, or some other destination where it is at least marginally more valuable and less environmentally harmful than landfill. They also shred and recycling the packaging, which conveniently obscures the branding (not that that is needed, as most depackagers are very security conscious and discreet, unlike the dumpster!). There is unused depackaging capacity in southern Ontario, and most retailers are not taking advantage of these services because:
- It is disruptive – they are at the mercy of the depackager to pick up products which may not be as fast as the retailer would like. It’s hard to beat the convenience of tossing unsaleable goods directly and immediately into the dumpster or compactor.
- It’s another contract to juggle in addition to standard waste collection.
- It may not be available at 100% of a retail chain’s locations which makes uniform policy and best practice for store managers more difficult.
- For some retailers it just isn’t even a priority, it’s not even on the agenda.
This needs to change. While we need to reduce food waste generation upstream, there will always be some amount of downstream waste. That downstream waste could be handled better, and there’s possibility for that to happen today.
Also in the garbage: bottles of water, frozen cherries that were still cold and tubs of margarine. In a statement, Walmart said it believes the food Marketplace found was unsafe for consumption. In many cases, however, the food was well before its best-before date and appeared to be fresh. Or, if it needed refrigeration or freezing, the food found was still cold.
I have to take issue with the CBC commentary here. Coldness, best-before dates, and appearance are all terrible indicators of safety. None of the indicators listed in the quote provide any particularly useful data to make a decent risk management decision. Best-before dates are often arbitrary, typically refer to quality (at their best) and not safety, and can’t account for variability in storage temperature and handling. Further to this point, just because something that is meant to be cold is cold, doesn’t mean it is safe. There’s simply not enough information for a gleaner to know how long the product has been at a given temperature or if there’s a hazard that can’t be seen.
Our senses are pretty good judges of quality: we can taste soured milk, which is perfectly safe to eat, if perhaps a bit unpleasant. But we can’t taste Hepatitis in still-frozen berries, or an undeclared allergen in a baked good that might result in illness or death if consumed unknowingly by a gleaner or someone that gleaner feeds, or a fresh apple contaminated with Listeria.The reality is, the majority of things that are going to make us sick cannot be seen, smelled, felt, or tasted. Our eyes, fingers, noses, and tongues are bad judges of food safety.
Dumpster-divers, gleaners, freegans, are doing good work recovering perfectly edible food, but it is really risky business unless you take great care (and even then, still risky). There are ways to reduce risks, such as keeping an eye on recall notices before gleaning and becoming familiar with which products are lower risk than others when temperature history and handling are unknowns.
But the reality is, in instances like this, products that look perfectly good may be perfectly bad. Products that are perfectly good may come into contact with harmful products and show no signs of that contact, resulting in cross-contamination. Again, these are things we cannot detect with our own senses. As long as legitimately good food and food recalled for posing a health threat are intermingled in the same bins, it’s impossible to, with any degree of certainty, separate the two.
But even the people in charge don’t necessarily know the difference between quality and safety:
“On some occasions, food which has not passed its best-before date is deemed unsafe for consumption,” Walmart said in its statement. “As a rule we don’t place fresh food items on display for sale if the quality is not acceptable.”
Here, the Walmart spokesperson is dangerously conflating safety and quality. There is a grand canyon that separates what counts as “safe food” and food that possesses “acceptable quality”. A statement like this erroneously reproduces the notion that quality is a safety issue, which is is not (though they may, in some cases be related). It also further occludes the rationale that underlies Walmart’s disposal practice: Is the food in the dumpster dangerous, or does it merely fail to meet some perceived quality expectation? Dangerous food should never be made, and if it is, shouldn’t be sold to consumers. Food that deviates from quality expectations but is safe should be sold and consumed by humans.
Marketplace staff looked for food waste at all the major retailers, including Costco, Metro, Sobeys, Loblaws and Walmart. While staffers found bins full of food at some Walmart locations, other chains had compactors making it impossible to see what they throw out.
This is some seriously bad practice from Walmart. No brand owner wants their products on display to anyone who walks to the back of a store. Retailers also generally “field destroy” recalled products, that is, when there is a product recall, they dispose of it on-site rather than send it back up through the supply chain. Compactors offer security from both a brand and public health perspective inasmuch as dangerous products are destroyed and inaccessible (though, of course, the use of a depackaging service is also secure and environmentally superior, but not typically used by retailers when handling recalled products). An unfortunate side-effect of compactors is that they prohibit informal recovery by gleaners and freegans, but the tradeoff is marginally improved brand and public health security. Walmart needs to prioritize security and switch to compactors. They’re playing a dangerous game with open dumpsters (though, as the CBC story notes, they’ve now started locking those dumpsters at least).
Food waste is a pernicious problem. We waste way too much food. What we can do today is reduce the impact of that waste. However, what is really needed is upstream solutions that reduce the overall generation of food waste. This means reducing contamination and safety problems that lead to product recalls. This means reducing over-production. This means reducing knee-jerk price-hikes that result in surpluses and subsequent blow-outs or disposal. It means disrupting the reproduction of arbitrary quality standards. We have a long way to go towards reducing food waste across the value chain, but what CBC is showing us with these stories is that there are some immediate steps that can be taken to reduce food waste and the attending environmental harm.