This month a UK-based institution revealed the shocking fact that of the four billion metric tonnes of food produced per year, not even half of it reaches the stomach of the end consumer.
The Institution of Mechanical Engineers, which conducted the study, attributed this fact to poor practices in harvesting, storage and transportation, as well as market and consumer wastage.
However, the nature of the food wastage largely depends on the type of society, with developed nations facing obstacles at the higher end of the food chain, with the market and the end consumers.
“Characteristics associated with modern consumer culture mean produce is often wasted through retail and customer behaviour,” the report says.
Consumer versus retailer
Many UAE residents admit to such wastage, attributing it to two factors - over-buying and over-preparing.
S Kumar agrees: “My wife always cooks too much. She wants to take into account all family members, all with their very specific needs. At the end of the day,about 30 per cent is left over,” tells the Indian.
The last days of food products arein the fridge. “We put the leftovers in the fridge, but nobody likes to eat food from the day before. We make fresh food every day and the leftover food gets thrown away in the end,” says EE.
The fridge seems to have become the sanctuary of unwanted food. Not only do many meals land up on shelves, but fresh food often finds its last stage in the fridge.
“I try to look at the items that are due and use them that same day. I also do my shopping weekly to avoid anything expiring in my fridge,” says Ayeesha Singh, an Indian resident in Dubai.
However, such practice requires coordination and not always things go as planned. “How often do you not consume on time what you have purchased, or you decide to go out for dinner instead of cooking what you already have?” asks Jannie Holtzhausen, CEO of Spinneys, Dubai LLC.
According to him, food wastage can be attributed to the household more than to the retailer. “If consumers made sure that they buy what they need, they would save 10-15 per cent in their money as well,” he says.
But the report includes supermarkets in the food wastage chain, especially in developed countries. “Promotional offers and high-pressure advertising campaigns, including bulk discounts and ‘buy one get one free’ offers, encourage shoppers to buy food in quantities in excess of their actual needs, which leads to substantial food wastage in the home,” it says.
“I can see this point,” saysJannie. “We sometimes package food in large quantities because it is more economical. However, we also have interactive counters where customers can ask for the amount they need.”
Labelling of food items is another issue. “Labelling of many foods can actually encourage waste. Many consumers have a poor understanding of ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates, and these dates are generally quite conservative, as they are driven by the retailer’s desire to avoid legal action,” says the report.
Added to that is the practice of customers to opt for the items that have the longest shelf life. “Would you buy items that will reach the expiry date on the same day? These items end up in the trash bin at the end of the day, because customers do not buy these items,” says Jannie.
"I never cook," admits an Egyptian resident of Dubai, who lives with his single male friends. "Sometimes we order food together, or sometimes it is only me, but it is always takeaway food."
According to him, the amount of food that is brought is always too much, and at least a quarter of the meal ends up in the bin every day. "Especially the biryani comes in bulk. I never finish these meals," he says.
A poll ran by the website asked readers how much of their delivered meal would be consumed. Almost half of the respondents (47 per cent) said that although they would not throw away the food, they would keep the leftovers in the fridge for the next day. Only 27 per cent indicated that the portions were suitable to their needs, and another 18 per cent said they throw away up to a quarter of the meal on average.
However, the bulk of the food prepared, served and wasted happens in the catering industry, which aims to give customers the best and most convenient consumption experience. In this industry running out of food is a worst-case scenario.
"We always prepare a little extra," tells Dillion, marketing managing at caterer Chimes. "We make sure that we do not run out of food at an event."
"Portion control measures are always applied," adds the caterer. "We are advised by the chefs, make our predictions and if the customer asks for amounts that we consider unrealistic, we advise them based on our expertise. We usually have leftover food of about 3-4 per cent of the total amount served."
Once an event nears its end, there are several ways of dealing with leftover food. "The customer may want to distribute it among the guests, or it is agreed that we give the food for charity on the same night. But we need to consider the risks of doing this," says Dillion.
Dubai Municipality is facilitating the latterwith an initiative aimed at safe collection and distribution of leftover food. Launched in 2008, the programme has proceeded at a slow pace, tells Bobby Krishna, Senior Food Studies Officer at the Food Control Department of Dubai Municipality.
"We have had some logistics problems. Our efforts will succeed only if we are collecting large amounts of food. That is why, unlike earlier, we are now focussing on hotels and caterers which deal with large amounts of food."
One of these hotels is BustanRotana and one of the pioneers in this field is Muhammad IhsanullahQamar, Director of Environment, Health and Safety, at the hotel. He too admits that 'serving that little extra' cannot be avoided, but he thinks that a lot can be done to utilise what is not consumed.
"As we are a five-star hotel, we cannot under produce. For us 200 guests mean 250 guests. But in most cases, we can foresee what will be leftover at the end of an event.
"What we do is that we inform the charity organisations involved with the programme about this amount a week in advance. Then they can plan what they need in equipment and staff. If needed, we provide them with these. After this the food is distributed among the poor. Between January and October 2012 we have reached out to 12,000 people in this way," he tells.
According to Muhammad, efforts should be made by all caterers as it will not only help people in need but also reduce the costs of waste collection and landfill production. "You could easily reduce your waste by 15-20 per cent in this way," he adds.
However, Bobby thinks that what we should not neglect is the preparation of too much food in the first place. "What is more important is how to plan the preparation of food rather than the collection of what is left over. In the end, that is how we should save food," he says.