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Rotten food

Canada is in a rare position: food is abundant and the population is affluent.

And while that's a good thing, it's also a recipe for a shameful amount of wasted food, according to the Value Chain Management Centre (VCMC) in Guelph, Ont., which estimates $27-billion worth of food produced for Canadian consumption never makes it to our bellies.

Most of us have been guilty of it. The wilted lettuce, expired eggs or leftovers left far too long. All of it gets tossed in the garbage can or composter. Statistics Canada actually calculated food waste down to the individual for 2009. The numbers are numbing:

- 122 kilograms of fruits and vegetables
- 6 kgs of dairy products
- 10 kgs of boneless poultry
- 16 kgs of boneless red meat
- 18 kgs of oils, fats, sugar and syrup

Canadians aren't alone. Wednesday is Food Day in the United States, a day aimed at getting consumers to be more aware of food use – and misuse. The food and agriculture arm of the United Nations estimated that in 2011, that one-third of food produced for hungry humans was wasted. That's about 1.3 billion tonnes in a world where starvation plagues some nations - some 860 million people are malnourished, according to a 2008 report by the Stockholm International Water Institute.

Meanwhile, the cost of food continues to rise in Canada. Last week, Statscan's Consumer Price Index showed a tame 1.6 per cent increase in food prices in September from a year ago. But with every bruised apple and blackened banana, consumers might as well be throwing loonies in the trash.

"Food waste presents as a real opportunity we need to address," said Martin Gooch, director of the VCMC, which is a branch of the independent George Morris Centre, an agriculture products think-tank. "It impacts the economy. It impacts the environment."

However, if every station of the food chain – from the farmer's gate to the consumer's plate - was pro-active, the amount of waste and environmental damage could be cut, Mr. Gooch added. At the same time, consumers could save money on their grocery bills and businesses could boost profits.

Mr. Gooch, who said he's been rethinking his own shopping and cooking habits since starting this research, blames large North American fridges for contributing to the problem.

"It makes it very easy to lose food... and then of course it's wasted," he said.

Where's all this waste?

The centre's report, which was recently released in advance of a conference on the issue next month, notes that in Canada, half of the food waste occurs in the home.

While Canada has done little to change food waste, according to experts, other jurisdictions are making strides. The United Kingdom's 12-year-old "waste reduction action programme" has be revamping things such as food date labelling so consumers don't think food has spoiled just because it has passed its best-before-date.

But Keivan Kokaei, head of the "lean and green" practice at S A Partners, as well as a visiting professor at the University of Buckingham in the U.K., said it's the retailers that are really at the forefront. They are taking steps to make sure food doesn't fall on the floor during processing or shunning buy-one, get-one free deals, since the research shows it actually hurts the bottom line and encourages waste.

Consumers have a role too.

"We should increasingly learn to be aware about our food consumption," Prof. Zokaei said. "We all have a previous generation that was raised during the war. You look at them, and they don't waste food."

Experts suggest a number of ways consumers can cut their waste:

- don't overstock perishables and check expiry dates at the store
- avoid bulk buying, which can lead to waste, and don't overstuff your refrigerator
- meal plan for a week and freeze leftovers
- cook, bake or put overripe produce into beverages

Dan Laplain, an associate at George Morris Centre, said a recent initiative to stop selling Ontario peaches in the traditional 3-litre baskets in favour of individual sales, was a huge success among growers, retailers and consumers - and it also cut down rotten peaches.

But as he considered his freezer full of Costco pork chops, Mr. Laplain admitted it's tough to change consumers' behaviour overnight.

"We almost seem to have this siege mentality," he said, "Go off in big vehicle, stock up as much as we can in an hour and take it home to store away."