Collective catering and food waste: using innovation to come up with solutions

By Ana Turón, Head of Collective Catering and of the Collective Catering Congress

On 29 September, it was International Day of Awareness on Food Loss and Waste Reduction (#IDWFLW). In a world where the number of people affected by hunger has slowly risen since 2014, and in which tonne after tonne of food is lost or wasted, it is fundamental to reduce such loss or waste; it is an environmental, ethical and economic imperative.

Based on this premise, in order to evaluate the true immensity of the problem, it is important to recall once again the UN figures on the subject: “globally, approximately 13% of the food produce is lost between harvest and retail sale; to this we must add the fact that around 17% of the total food production is thrown out by households, catering and retail establishments”.

When there are seven years left to attain Goal 12.3 of Sustainable Development Goal 12 (SDG), it is imperative to streamline the measures aimed at reducing food loss and waste.

“De-normalising” the throwing out of food

Food waste is today a priority issue in the collective catering industry, which is proven by the many initiatives put into place by companies and centres. The standard practice of throwing food out at school canteens, corporative restaurants and hospitals is becoming a thing of the past, and a new stage has begun in which, to a greater or lesser degree of success, the projects related to the fight against food waste are commonplace and unquestionable in many of these services. Awareness-raising and getting everyone on board is the start of the solution.

The segment that has spent more time working on the reduction of food waste is that of school canteens. The awareness and growing regulatory pressure has meant a great leap forward in this fight, despite which, according to the report issued by the collective catering company Campos Estela, last year, the daily food waste is estimated to total around 21 kg per student per year.

At the opposite side of the spectrum are hospital catering services, which are the ones wasting the most food, despite the occasional highly commendable project. According to Te Lo Sirvo Verde (an environmental consultant specialised in hospitality), most studies and audits performed in the hospital environment speak of waste amounting to between 25% and 60% of the food served. For each patient in hospital, between 500-900 g/day is thrown out. If we take into account that Spain has 157,000 hospital beds, it means we are throwing out 45,800 tonnes of edible food a year.

Consequence of food waste

When food is thrown out or wasted, all the resources used in its production (water, land, energy, labour and capital) are squandered as well. What’s more, the disposal of discarded food or food waste in landfills generates greenhouse gas emissions (GGE), which contributes to climate change. Food loss or waste can also have negative repercussions as to food availability.

Getting down into the day-to-day problem this represents for the industry, beyond ethical concerns and the awareness of customers and employees, the reduction of food waste is a key strategy in cost reduction: throwing out food cuts into the profit margin, not to mention undercutting the value of the product itself and damaging brand image.

One must not forget either that the Spanish draft law on Food Loss and Waste speaks of obligations and includes a set of penalties that envisages fines between €2,000 and €60,000. In Catalonia, for example, where the law has been approved since March 2020, among many other obligations, there must be a food waste prevention plan in place and applied.

Artificial intelligence (AI) to combat food waste

The implementation of processes that adapt the tools and objectives companies have to a necessarily digitalised world is a practice that is here to stay. The digital transformation has come to all industries to improve their processes, be more efficient and in general, help companies and professionals to reach their goals… and the strategies to reduce food waste are not being left out of this revolution.

Food loss and waste are a sign of an inefficient system operation. As Arnau Abarca says, the business development manager for the Soleti Group and food waste prevention specialist, “when you have a collective catering service, it is essential to measure the food we are throwing out to know where we stand and what isn’t working. Production volumes must be adjusted as much as possible, and to do this you must make a very good prediction of what you are really going to need”.

Beyond digitalisation, artificial intelligence has emerged in this field as well. Solutions such as the ‘Smartfood Waste’ system (Inno4Food de Grupo Soleti), which is based on AI to record and recognise automatically what type of food is being thrown out, how much and at what time of day; it tracks and predicts the food waste and the associated CO₂ emissions.

Simple and ingenious: the tool functions with a camera with AI technology located over the rubbish bin, which automatically recognises what products are being tossed out. These data are handled and processed by the system, providing the exact identification of what is being wasted and how changes can be implemented in the portion size, storage or planning, improving operations, supply and purchasing.

Excess is inevitable, waste is not

Despite the growing awareness, the projects, the regulatory pressure and technology, there is still a long way to go. As Denis Ugalde, CEO and founder of Oreka says, “it is inevitable for a collective catering outfit to generate surplus food, but it is up to them to take the measures to keep this surplus from turning into waste”.

The donation of surplus food is an issue that has been up and running for years. There are many initiatives led by private companies, the fourth industry or even the government, but often the employees in these services are inevitably unsure as to food safety and the liability issues involved in potential cases of food poisoning.

Beyond the aforementioned draft law against food waste, whose measures contemplate or even prioritise donation (and therefore clarify the conditions in which it is donated), this is a field in which digitalisation can help streamline things. There are systems in the market, such as the one from the Basque start-up Oreka Circular Economy, whose technology helps collective catering companies donate their food surplus safely.

As Mr. Ugalde assures, “I want to stress the idea that donating food, from a legal standpoint, is the same as selling it, and we work to have the same guarantees. It’s not about giving what’s left over in any which way, rather, it’s designing an internal process that allows the overproduction to be distributed and taken advantage of in an entirely safe manner. In addition, thanks to technology, we help our clients to understand trends, visualise key indicators and improve their internal management decisions to reduce their excess over time. On average, our clients reduce their surplus by around 15 to 20% in the first year”.

If in your company you are working on a plan to combat food waste and want to find out more, you can find these two solutions from the Soleti Group and Oreka at the “Collective catering: meeting point” of Hostelco & Restaurama.