This month, Walmart plans to introduce a new food label that it hopes will help reduce food waste while keeping food prices low.
“With 795 million people in the world reportedly going hungry, food waste is an ugly problem to face,” said Frank Yiannas, vice president of food safety for Walmart. “In the U.S. alone, it is estimated that consumers throw away $ 29 billion worth of edible food each year in their homes. Walmart is especially concerned with reducing food waste, not only because we’re the world’s largest grocer, but also as an integral part of our [everyday low cost] philosophy that provides you everyday low prices. Two culprits of food waste are confusion caused by food labels and the tossing of imperfect — but perfectly usable — fresh produce.”
According to Yiannas, current labeling is confusing to consumers as food-safety indicators. “Most of the labels are created based on peak quality,” he said in a recent blog. “Adding to the confusion is the different language used on labels, including ‘best by,’ ‘use by’ and ‘sell by.’ That’s why, in the last year, we started requiring suppliers of nonperishable food products under our Great Value private label to use a standardized date label, ‘Best if used by’.”
The switch will go into full effect this month and involves thousands of products. Yiannas said the change was motivated by the release of a report by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council, The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America in 2013.
“My team has been working on a solution since then,” he added. “I expect the standard labels to have an even bigger impact on waste reduction since many of our suppliers sell products under their own labels outside of Walmart. This is significant, as the global economic impact of food wastage comes to about $ 750 billion each year.”
John Forrest Ales, Walmart’s director of corporate communications, spoke with The Produce News in mid-July to talk about the problem of food waste and ways in which the company is addressing the issue. “At the heart of who we are is everyday low cost,” he said. “We take that incredibly seriously.”
Ales said Walmart has developed its own distribution system to source fresh produce on a global basis. “We have a unique supply chain. We have standards beyond the Food and Drug Administration as to what produce should look like,” he said. “Our farmers pack and sort according to these standards.”
Recently, questions have arisen about food waste and what has been termed “ugly” or “wonky” produce. Fresh produce that falls into this category may not look perfect on the outside, but still provide consumers with high-quality fresh produce when consumed because the flaws are cosmetic only. An example, Ales said, is a three-legged carrot growing from a common green top.
“Farmers find alternate uses for these in most cases,” he explained, saying that the volume of product that does not fit with Walmart’s standard is relatively small. “There’s not a lot of that moving through the supply chain. You can’t just create three-legged carrots.”
In some instances, Ales said Walmart works with its network of farmers to move whole lots of produce that may have been affected by weather conditions. Freezes are examples, he said, of more global events that might have an impact upon the quality of fresh produce.
In the meantime, Jordan Figueiredo, a municipal recycling agent in Castro Valley, CA, and food nutritionist Stefanie Sacks are planning to submit a petition to Walmart at its Bentonville, AR, headquarters on July 20 signed by persons who encourage Walmart to address food waste by making produce that is less than perfect cosmetically available at its stores.