New Initiatives Taking a Bite out of Food Waste

By Frank Yiannas
July 13, 2016
A variety of Great Value pasta boxes fill store shelves

With 795 million people in the world reportedly going hungry, food waste is an ugly problem to face. In the U.S. alone, it’s 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 as an integral part of our EDLC philosophy that provides you everyday low prices.

Two culprits of food wastage are confusion caused by food labels and the tossing of imperfect, but perfectly usable, fresh produce.

Consumers often mistake date labels as food safety indicators; however, most of the labels are created based on peak quality. 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.

What really got our attention was a report released in 2013 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. My team has been working on a solution since then.

After surveying our customers about how they would choose a food label that indicated a change in quality but not safety, there was a clear winner: “Best if used by”. 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.

Although food waste has been making headlines in recent months, including an in-depth article in the Guardian, Walmart has been doing its part for more than a decade to create a zero waste future by affecting change in the way we do business and throughout our supply chain, especially where fresh produce is concerned.

For years we’ve worked with farmers to repurpose fruits and vegetables that may be slightly blemished or oddly shaped. These items usually make up a very small part of a harvest and aren’t a major contributor to food waste; however, we know every bit counts. A customer may not take home a triangle-shaped apple from our produce bins, but that apple is just as tasty when made into apple juice.

Earlier this year we began selling Spuglies, Russet potatoes that were less than perfect on the outside thanks to rough weather in Texas. Working with our supplier, we found a way to offer these at a value price. Our wonky veg test at Asda in the UK was so popular, we now offer it year round when farmers have enough supply.

Because customers around the world shop very differently, our team here in the U.S. has been working for months on our first spec for this type of produce. We’re exploring the ways to make these items available while providing value to our customers and supporting farmers.

Our efforts don’t stop there. In 2009, Walmart and Sam’s Club U.S. launched a first-of-its-kind organics recycling program nationwide. As of 2015, the equivalent of more than 25,000 tractor-trailers full of food waste has been diverted out of the waste stream through composting, conversion to animal feed and energy production through anaerobic digestion.

In 2015, Walmart began selling garden products from Ecoscraps, a company that turns food scraps into organic and sustainable lawn materials such as compost, potting mixes and plant food. To date, our sales of these products amount to more than 2.4 million pounds of food waste diverted from landfills.

Another recent collaboration is preventing millions of eggs from being thrown away annually.

Food waste is a big problem that will only get bigger as the world’s population grows. Countries around the globe are realizing we’re not going to be able to produce our way to feeding 9 billion people, so we have to reduce food waste now.