What are we doing about food waste?

As highlighted by a recent report from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, as a global community we waste up to half of the food that we produce. It’s clear that as world population grows and resources become scarcer, we need to address this to ensure food security for all. The challenge of food security & food safety is concerned with ensuring that all people, at all times, have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.

At the Institute of Food Research, we are tackling the problem of food waste in a number of different ways.

The IMechE report pointed to a number of areas where wastage occurs. One important reason identified was poor storage conditions leading to spoilage of the food. Research at IFR is contributing to reduce microbial spoilage of food, and also includes studies to understand how three major foodborne bacterial pathogens of the greatest concern to the UK (Salmonella, Campylobacter and Clostridium botulinum) survive and grow in the food chain.

In the UK alone, food poisoning presently affects millions of people per annum, with significant morbidity and mortality, and an annual economic cost of more than £2 billion. We need to reduce the present level of foodborne illness, and understanding more about the bacterial pathogens that cause food poisoning will help achieve this.

At the same time as ensuring food is safe, can we find ways of reducing waste? The IMechE report points to how consumers are throwing away uneaten food due to it passing its use-by date. We have been working with the food industry on the SUSSLE project to find safe, sustainable ways in which shelf-life can be extended, thereby contributing to reducing food waste.

Mike Peck commented “Scientists at IFR are delighted to have had the opportunity to work closely with colleagues in the food industry on the ground-breaking SUSSLE project. The novel scientific advances made in this project are being used to make a significant contribution to food security and food safety, through a reduction in food waste and the continued safe development of chilled prepared foods”.

Ensuring the future sustainable supply of safe foods will include meeting consumer demand for greater food choice, including higher quality foods, and providing food for an increasing number of susceptible groups such as the elderly that require products made to a higher safety specification. This will need to be achieved against a background of climate change, increased global population – predicted to increase from seven billion to nine billion by the middle of this century – and potential limiting resources (e.g. water, minerals, energy).

The accurate measurement of food waste and losses is vital to begin to deal with the challenges of food waste and IFR, along with WRAP, are the UK partners in the recently started FUSIONS project which aims to improve the definition and quantification of food waste to help achieve a reduction of 50% in food waste by the year 2020.

Innovative research at IFR is also looking for new ways of increasing sustainability in the food chain through using waste materials. Some waste streams are inevitable at all parts of the food chain, and there are many inedible components that have the potential for exploitation. For example, we are using industrial biotechnology approaches to take such waste streams and turn them into valuable products or resources. Field waste has the potential to be used for the production of renewable chemicals and biofuels and materials such as packaging and plastics.

The Biorefinery Centre at IFR is a focal point for this research on the Norwich Research Park. IFR collaborates extensively in this are through projects such as HOOCH, on the production of bioalcohols from agri-food chain waste. Also, fruit and vegetable trimmings discarded by food processors are being developed as sources of valuable nutrients and bioactive chemicals that may be used in the treatment of disease and to improve health.

Keith Waldron commented: “The Biorefinery Centre at IFR provides a good example of forward thinking by the BBSRC, enabling the UK to effectively address these problems both at home and across the world.

vegetable off-cuts

This approach ultimately reduces the overall amount of waste, but also adds extra value to the food chain. Through an understanding of the chemical structure of this waste material, and research into how to fractionate it, we can turn this into valuable products. Biofuels, for example, can be used to power the farm or food processing factory, reducing inputs and the overall carbon footprint.

Keith Waldron talks about IFR’s strategic work on exploiting co-products and waste in this new video:

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