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sylvain charlebois

Rising concerns about food waste in the West have recently led a former top executive in the food retail business to develop a business model in which food waste is reduced upstream from consumers.

Former Trader Joe president Doug Rauch's concept, The Daily Table, is proposed as a chain of hybrid grocery store-restaurants cooking on-site with expired food products, then selling nutritious, counter-ready meals. The use of products would not be brand-driven, and most locations would be situated in underserved urban markets. Such a project would extend the shelf life of many food items that currently end up in landfill.

Mr. Rauch's undertaking reflects the growing unease generated by recent findings that 90 per cent of American consumers throw out food prematurely, and that 40 per cent of the U.S. food supply goes unused every year due to problematic food dating.

A range of factors have contributed to this situation. First, Western consumers have become resistant to any imperfection in consumer products in general, and in particular have become accustomed to the highest-quality foods at affordable prices. When an expiry date is reached, the alternatives are too compelling. It's that simple.

This phenomenon has been coupled with an increased focus on supply-chain discipline. An increasing number of manufacturers use "best before" dates on packages to coerce food distributors and retailers to manage store inventory in favour of profitability. Retailers are arguably more careful with product shelf life, since dates are readily available to consumers.

As a result, inventory turnover has increased exponentially in recent years, with product dating now ubiquitous in the industry. However, some believe that supply-chain discipline has gone too far. The example of "best before" dates printed on containers of pure honey – a product that never expires – has been used to exemplify the problem.

Others have complained that labelling policies in Canada related to expiry and "best before" dates are too ambiguous. But in comparison to the U.S. and elsewhere, Canada's rules are relatively simple. Indeed, other countries allow more abstract "sell by" or "best if used by" dating schemes, which can further confuse consumers.

The challenge in food dating is to offer clearer information directly to consumers, and the most effective way to do that is by giving it to them at home, when products are in cupboards, freezers and fridges.

To that end, a range of packaging strategies is required. Active "smart" packaging, for example, interacts chemically or biologically with its contents to let consumers know whether the product is still safe to eat. Such technologies are readily available, but they come at a price. Given that food safety presently has little or no currency in the Canadian marketplace, manufacturers have to think of ways to financially support this cost increase. Given how low industry profit margins are, some consumers would see prices increase in order to make smarter packaging feasible.

One affordable solution might be actively incorporating the consumer as part of the industry's food traceability scheme. QR codes, the common square bar codes that can be scanned with any smartphone, could be used to give consumers more information about a product's manufacture and expected shelf life.

Short of increasing food prices, giving consumers direct access to the data would help them make better choices, and in so doing reducing premature food disposal. It would likely make a difference.

Sylvain Charlebois is professor in food distribution and policy and associate dean at the College of Management and Economics, University of Guelph.

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