Scary amounts of food are being dumped by the commercial food industry on a daily basis. In 2014, Katy Barfield decided to do something about it by founding Yume, an online B-to-B marketplace for surplus food. Here are five important points from her recent talk in Auckland.
Three thousand cartons of Coco Pops. Nearly five tons of turkey breast fillet. Fourteen boxes of egg yolk powder. Five hundred and seventeen cartons of slow-cooked Mexican beef chuck.
When you think of food that’s potentially going to waste, the above is probably not what comes to mind. You might think of wilted lettuce or stale bread, but the reality of the problem is much bigger, in all senses of the word.
Because the items mentioned above are a few of the deals currently on offer on Yume, an Australian wholesale marketplace for surplus food. Its founder Katy Barfield is a food rescue veteran who initially approached the problem on a retail level with her organisation SecondBite, which rescues surplus fresh food from a range of suppliers and redistributes to those in need – a model similar to New Zealand outfits like KiwiHarvest and Kaibosh.
But she soon realised while that model is important and commendable, a big part of the problem is commercial food waste, which nothing was being done to combat. “I realised quickly we could have much more impact if we created a B-to-B [business-to-business] platform and moved serious volume,” she recalls.
In Australia, 7.3 million tonnes of food is discarded each year, 4.1 million tonnes of which is from the commercial food sector. It’s estimated that between 400,000 and 600,000 tonnes of that is perfectly good food that could, and should, be eaten.
So in 2014, Barfield founded Yume, an online platform that connects suppliers and buyers, with surplus food posted for at least 20% below wholesale price. Last week, she spoke in Auckland as part of Spark Lab’s Future of the Future series. Here are five takeaways from the talk and a follow-up interview with The Spinoff.
The scale is mind-boggling
Barfield recounted a food rescue operation Yume undertook involving a cancelled order of Tasmanian tuna. A supermarket chain had ordered the tuna to be sold as part of a salad pack where each component was individually wrapped. It soon realised, however, that tuna was not the most aesthetically pleasing product to be encased in a see-through pouch. It looked like cat food, in short, and no one wanted to buy it.
So they cancelled the rest of the order, leaving the supplier with 27.5 tonnes of perfectly good tuna encased in 550,000 little pouches that was destined to be buried. Yume stepped in, however, and managed to sell the lot – much to smaller retailers such as sandwich shops.
Often it’s food that’s nutritionally barren, so can’t be donated
A large food manufacturer once approached Yume about 14 tonnes of artificial sweetener it no longer required because it had been removed from the ingredients of a certain product. “We thought oh my god, what are we going to do with that?” says Barfield.
The solution? “My team found a pharmaceutical company that used it in the coating for their tablets and sold the lot. Extraordinary.”
The likes of cocoa butter and lactose powder also come up fairly often – things you see on ingredients lists on the back of boxes.
Barfield now has alcohol in her sights. “Huge amounts of alcohol get crushed every day, because only six months is left on the date instead of the eight months that’s required from the major liquor houses.
“That we will move on at some point, but we need to be really strategic,” she says, adding that events are one obvious target area.
There are many reasons food can be unfit for sale, but perfectly fit to eat
Product lines being deleted at short notice or promotions getting cancelled, like the tuna mishap above, is a big issue, but mislabelled products also make up a large proportion of surplus food. It may sound like red-tape silliness, but there are good reasons why a mislabelled product can’t be sold through the usual channels. “Imagine if you leave off a potentially life-threatening allergy,” says Barfield. “But now you can go on the platform and fully disclose the ingredients, and it could go into a commercial kitchen.”
Shelf life is another big issue – many supermarkets require at least six months before the best-before or use-by date to sell a product – as is weight. “The minute something’s underweight even by 5g, it can’t be sold because it’s labelled.”
Wasting food is ingrained in the industry
Companies have budget set aside for burying food in landfill, says Barfield, and often don’t want anything to rock the boat. She tells a story of a canned food business that had 15 pallets of surplus beans. The lot was sold through Yume, but then the order was stopped.
“The CFO had three buckets of budget – one was the donations budget, one was the discount budget, and one was the landfill budget. The donations and discount buckets were full, but the landfill bucket was not so full. So he thought, ‘Bury it’. That’s the kind of logic we deal with.
“We said ‘this does not make sense – you’re going to bury it, but we could give you a return on it’. They acquiesced, but this is the way the industry is wired. Food waste is just business as usual, it’s factored into their profit and loss. It’s a budget line, so if you’re trying to balance the books and you don’t want to attract the attention of the CEO, you don’t want any of your buckets to overflow.”
Government has a role to play, but legislation is not the only option
In 2016, France banned supermarkets from throwing away food that could be donated. “Legislation can help,” says Barfield. “That’s the stick methodology, but there’s also the carrot methodology, which for me is a bit more appealing.
“Government is the biggest procurer of food in most countries – if you think of healthcare, corrections, defence, aged care. They provide services and food for millions of people, and if they mandated to buy X percentage of product through a platform like Yume, they would significantly move the dial.
“I think that’s the role the government can play more than just legislate without necessarily having the framework in place to deal with it.”
The industry is still throwing away a huge amount of food, and there’s no doubt it’s happening in New Zealand
“It’s business as usual, it’s just been the part of what they do. Let’s get them to admit there is a problem and not feel shame about it,” says Barfield. “Part of the problem is lack of visibility – sometimes it gets buried on their own land.”
Barfield says she’s very interested in setting up Yume in New Zealand, because we have some food industry giants based here – Fonterra, to name one. So watch this space.
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