Food waste can arise at all levels of the industry, including in manufacturing. A study was recently released detailing how human error is the main cause of this, with a lack of training and standardisation among staff and managerial practices being cited as integral to this issue.
We spoke to the lead researcher of the study, Dr Manoj Dora, and environmental writer Erich Lawson, to gain a deeper understanding into the causes of food waste in manufacturing and what can be done to remedy these detrimental practices.
“My current research focuses on how we can switch from our traditional, industrial ‘linear’ model to a circular economy,” Dora said. “My research specifically focuses on the food system. I believe that current food production and consumption habits, supported by neoliberal capitalistic rationalities, has resulted in a number of negative environmental impacts such as eutrophication and increased CO2 emissions as well as massive amounts of food waste.”
Dora’s work goes further than analysis food waste problems, as he aims to find practical solutions to encourage the implementation of a circular economy.
“I am currently undertaking a study called ‘Mapping the impact of a circular pathway for the UK food supply chain’. This research seeks to identify and examine new ways that can accommodate the re-integration of food waste into the productive cycle and provide pathways for stakeholders to engage and recognise opportunities to work as partners.
“A further aim of this project is to identify incentives for food supply chain members to move beyond current market dynamics leading to a higher implementation of Circular Economy principles.”
The circular economy can be encouraged through using bio-waste as a resource for compost, Lawson contends: “While everything possible is done to use organic waste, there are certain parts that remain inedible and can be further converted into compost using a food composter. Compost is rich in nutrients and promotes plant growth. This technique of food waste management helps soil retain moisture and grows healthy plants, while reducing the volume of waste.”
It may seem like a basic action, but measurement is crucial to determining output levels, and will impact on the end amount of food waste.
“I have visited more than 50 food manufacturers in Europe in the last five years,” Dora explained. “I was really surprised to learn how only a few companies measure how much they were throwing away, and they were surprised to see in monetary terms how much they’re losing because of food loss.
“An important gap was to find the hot spots and root causes of food loss in the production process. It may be cliché to say, but, ‘if you can’t measure, you can’t manage’. ”
Dora’s study provides some useful insights into how his study can benefit manufacturers:
“Before production (planning/ordering, storage, inventory), three main causes of food loss (wrong order, suboptimal storage and poor inventory management) were identified.
“Analysis further shows that during the production stage (processing and packaging) one in five companies consider poor transportation, interrupted production, product changes, human errors and product defects as major reasons for food loss. About 13% of the companies reported substantial losses arising from product changes. Similarly, 8.7% of the companies linked excessive losses to product defects.
“In the after-production stage (inventory, transport and buyer contract), companies experienced food loss due to sub-optimal inventory management (10.9%) and buyer contracts (8.5%) due to obsolete product lines, new product promotions, seasonality or trends leading to food loss.”
Food waste is prevalent all along the supply chain.
It was revealed that human error-caused food waste counted for 75% of participating companies in the study. Dora gave a deeper explanation as to why this may be: “Bad handling of food by the employees often originates from lack of knowledge and low levels of training. This is a significant finding and appropriate management training can reduce human error and prevent losses in food companies.”
Lawson recommends going to the root of the problem, and says that manufacturers should calculate how much is needed to create end products from the outset: “Due to a lack of forecasting, a large number of manufacturers are unable to determine the right amount of raw ingredients required to produce products. As a result, a substantial amount of food goes to waste.
“With more effective and precise forecasting models, food manufacturers will not have to play the guessing game anymore. And instead, they can maximize their time producing the right amount of food products.”
In order to alter manufacturing practices, Lawson provides a solution: “Having the right ERP software in place will facilitate food waste reduction efforts by food manufacturers and distributors. ERP software is an ideal solution for food manufacturers looking to reduce food waste.
“With ERP software in place, manufacturers can analyse shelf life, track slots, prevent cross-contamination, avoid overstocking and accurate inventory orders.”
Dora adds to the options manufacturers have to avoid waste further down the production process: “Food processing companies need to use innovative management systems such as lean manufacturing, Six Sigma and other techniques to prevent food loss.
“While the concept of lean manufacturing has only been applied recently in the food industry to reduce food loss during processing, it has already been shown to be an effective tool that can be successfully implemented in various companies, even in Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs), and across food sectors and countries.
“Including food loss in Key Performance Indicators (KPI) as well as the use of appropriate planning and scheduling tools can also help companies to reduce the problem to manageable proportions.
“While KPIs can improve the awareness, targeting and monitoring of food loss, holistic approaches to equipment maintenance can avoid breakdowns, small stops, defects or accidents. However, further research is needed to determine effective strategies to empower operators and create shared responsibility for equipment maintenance and food loss measurement, such as through the visualisation of food loss objectives.”
Dora contended that food companies should be concerned about food waste at a manufacturing level, not only because of environmental impacts but also due to the cost-effectiveness of solving these issues.
“As our data shows, relative costs of food loss vary substantially (between £0.60 and £5.90 per unit), which confirms the recent Waste & Resources Action Programme study. These financial food loss impacts are underestimated, as the true cost goes beyond the monetary consequences of reduced sales by including costs associated with, for example, the production and removal of waste, such as energy and labor. As such, the real economic cost of food loss within food companies could be as high as 4% of the turnover.
The impacts go beyond isolated cases, and can also spread through the entire supply chain, Dora noted.
“There is also a need to better evaluate the interaction between different stakeholders in the food chain. Such a whole chain approach requires the involvement of downstream actors, such as retailers and consumers as the major contributors to food loss and waste in developed countries, but also upstream actors, like farmers.”
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