How food loss and waste can arise


All food products which can be found at the storage of the food bank in Bogotá were originally destined for wastage. Now they can be used to supply people in need. (© Felicitas Schneider)

An average foodstuff goes through about 33 hands before it can be inspected by the customer in the supermarket. Well-coordinated flows of goods enable a smooth process. Sometimes, however, a stone comes into the gearbox. This can also lead to food losses and waste.

The difference between the best before date and the use by date

Since December 13th, 2014, the EU Regulation 1169/2011 has regulated uniform labelling of (packaged) foodstuffs within the European Union as information for consumers. Among other things, the Regulation also defines the terms "date of minimum durability" (in practice known as best before date) and "use by date". -

  • According to this definition, the date of minimum durability of a foodstuff is the date until this foodstuff retains its specific properties if properly stored. The specific properties vary from food to food and may include, for example, the loud cracking of a biscuit when it is bitten into. If the date of minimum durability of a food product is reached or exceeded, the manufacturer no longer guarantees its specific property. This means that the biscuit may also be eaten noiseless after that date.
  • In the case of foodstuffs which are highly perishable from a microbiological point of view and which may constitute an immediate danger to human health after a short period of time, the date of minimum durability shall be replaced by the use by date. At this date, the foodstuff is considered unsafe which means that it may affect human health. Sensitive foods such as fresh meat or fish are marked with the use by date.

Certain foods are excluded from the indication of the date of minimum durability, e.g. fresh fruit and vegetables that have not been pre-processed, beverages with an alcohol content of 10 % or more by volume, bakery products (normally eaten within 24 hours of production) or cooking salt.

From the field straight into the bin?

Sorted out onions are redistributed to the field and ploughed in. (© Felicitas Schneider)

Many different resources are needed to produce food:

  • The soil must be suitable for the selected seed and be available in sufficient area.
  • Sufficient water, sun, heat and nutrients at the right time are basic prerequisites for the healthy growth of plants and animals.
  • The farmer needs experience in how to care for his plants and animals in order to achieve a good yield.
  • At harvest time, all factors such as harvesting technology, weather and logistics must work together to actually bring this yield to the warehouse and the market.

Lack of demand and low product prices, lack of storage and cooling facilities, pest infestation and exaggerated demands on the appearance of agricultural products can lead to food not being harvested or not being marketed after the harvest. When was the last time you ate a two-legged carrot?

As early as 2013, scientists from the Thünen Institute prepared a first estimate of plant food losses in agricultural primary production (available in german only), exemplary for wheat, potatoes, apples and carrots. In the REFOWAS project (English summary available) they have investigated, among other things, how losses in primary production and storage can be avoided and how relations between farmers and trade can be positively influenced to make better use of food. 

Our experiences targeting fruit and vegetable losses in Germany, potato losses at harvest as well as persimmon losses at harvest and storage have been published in interna-tional journals.

What can go wrong during processing?

Surplus dairy products are picked up by a van with cold chain facility at the dairy company and distributed to people in need. (© Felicitas Schneider)

Modern technology supports the safe and hygienic processing of food - but sometimes it also makes mistakes.

Incorrect machine settings and inadequate warehouse logistics can contaminate, pack poorly or damage food during or immediately after production. The best before and use by date are also an important factor in the supply relationship between producers and retailers.

The best-before date set by the producer must cover the entire period between production, the producer's storage and the delivery to the retailer, the storage on the supermarket shelf and the purchase and consumption by the consumer. In the first third of this period, the producer should deliver the goods to the retailer. If the producer puts too much goods in stock and does not sell them to the trade in time, the latter usually does not accept the goods anymore.

The affected foods, which, depending on the product group, still have weeks (e.g. dairy products) or months (e.g. frozen products, beverages) to reach the best-before date, are therefore considered unsaleable. Most of them are disposed of but are now also donated to social institutions - as can be seen in the photo.

Together with project partners, scientists from the Thünen Institute conducted research in the REFOWAS project (English summary available) on measures in processing companies to reduce surpluses in bread and baked products.

The ELoFoS project of the Thünen Institute of Market Analysis is investigating, among other things, the interfaces between suppliers of fish products and sausage and meat products and the hotel industry. Which optimisation is possible through different degrees of convenience of the products in terms of food waste? Practice-oriented solutions are being developed together with the project partners.

Consumers want full shelves – don't they?

In food retailing, it has become a matter of course that a large selection of fresh food is available at any time of the day or night. This causes an enormous logistical challenge: orders are supported by computer programs that take into account holidays, weather, the location of the point of sale and other factors.

Nevertheless, full shelves and consumers' desire for fresh food at all times mean that products are sorted out and thrown away because they no longer meet the requirements.

For some years now, the food trade has been assuming its responsibility in dealing with surplus food. In the meantime, there are numerous cooperation activities with social institutions that pass on edible food to those in need, or special sales strategies for otherwise unsaleable products, for example the SirPlus concept awarded by Federal Minister Julia Klöckner in 2018 or the initiative of the German supermarket Penny called Bio-Helden.

The national strategy against food waste includes dialogue fora for each level of the food value chain, in which participants from politics, business and research negotiate joint agreements to avoid food waste. The dialogue forum Wholesale and Retail started in autumn 2019 and the Thünen Institute is significantly involved in future sustainable cooperation. The aim is to improve the data situation on surplus food in trade for Germany and at the same time implement measures to efficiently reduce food waste. The Thünen staff members also make their expertise on retail available in reference books (Routledge Handbook of Food Waste in English available) on an international level.

XXL portions and Schnitzel-all-you-can-eat

A positive slogan on a doggy bag in Vienna (one wears again schnitzel). (© Harald Geist)

Do you know this? "Does the father say to the waiter: Can you please pack the leftovers for the dog? Then the son to the father full of expectation: We finally get a dog?“

XXL portions are widespread in catering trade in Germany. But who dares to have leftovers packed up for them? Many people interpret this as unpleasant and they feel stingy. So the dog is pushed forward. Stand by to have leftovers wrapped up for later enjoyment!

Other customers tend to overcrowded plates at "All you can eat" buffets. Why not take the opportunity to go to the buffet several times and enjoy the cozy taste of the offer? Less remains on the plate if it should not taste - and it costs the same money.

Often too much food is ordered for business lunches and family celebrations. Open leftovers from buffets have to be thrown away for hygienic reasons. They can no longer be kept or passed on to other people. Some caterers, however, offer the possibility that you and your guests can pack up the leftovers and take them with you. Just ask!

A demand-oriented production and safe storage of food in company canteens, hospitals or hotels is a logistical challenge for the chefs and requires a lot of experience and information exchange within the company.

In the joint project REFOWAS (English summary available) with the North Rhine-Westphalian consumer advice centre, scientists from Thünen Institute researched how demand-oriented production and safe storage of food can be implemented in practice and how the economical use of food in out-of-home catering can be supported.

The ELoFoS joint project is also concerned with out-of-home catering. Efficient measures to reduce food waste are being investigated in canteen kitchens in the hotel and care sectors. For this task, the Thünen-Institute of Market Analysis, the Institute for Sanitary Engineering, Water Quality and Solid Waste Management at University of Stuttgart, the Maritim Hotelgesellschaft, the service company MediClin à la Carte as well as the suppliers Deutsche See and Wurst-Fleischwaren-Service have joined their forces.

The Thünen Institute contributes its expertise to the dialogue forum "Out-of-Home Catering", which was founded within the framework of the National Strategy, especially in the agreement of data provision for an improved monitoring.

The economical housewife – old-fashioned or hip?

A full refrigerator and daily fresh bread are seen as very important by domestic households. Often food is left over because we have bought or cooked too much of it. Usually nobody wants to eat the excess food anymore, so that it is thrown away. Try yourself as a leftover gourmet and conjure up delicious dishes from the leftovers, such as the weekly pizza! Your family will be surprised.

Even targeted shopping with shopping lists helps to prevent surpluses from arising in the first place. Further tips on how to avoid food waste can be found on the website "Too good for the bin" (“Zu gut für die Tonne” ) launched by the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL).

The BMEL has commissioned the market research institute GfK with a study that for the first time provides representative results on the type and composition of food waste in private households in Germany. In Thünen Working Paper 92 (with summary in English), the Thünen Institute explains the results in a scientific context. In addition, further statistical analysis reveals correlations between the characteristics of the households surveyed and the food thrown away, providing new insights for future awareness-raising activities.

In the REFOWAS project (English summary available), the Thünen Institute together with the Max Rubner Institute investigated how households deal with food and which factors lead to throwing it away. In cooperation with the University of Stuttgart, some new methodological findings at household level have been published.