Ovtene: This is their story

1.    Summarize your business in one sentence. 

Ovtene is a packaging technology company that was inspired by the protection provided by an eggshell, which extends the shelf life of food products while maintaining their sensory characteristics and freshness.

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2. How long have you been in business? 

Ovtene products were launched in Italy in 2008, and extended their reach into most of Europe by 2015. These products became available in North America in 2016. 

3. Why did you decide to start the company?

In 2005, Alberto Tomasini was troubled by how swiftly certain foods became less palatable, dried out, deteriorated, and eventually became inedible. Inspired by the functions of the egg he began researching at the University of Udine Food Sciences in Italy, and eventually developed the material known as Ovtene. This material has the capacity to keep nearly any perishable food item fresh for much longer by retarding bacterial and mold growth.

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After being highly successful in Italy, the product moved into other European countries for grocery and food production packaging. In 2012, we began thinking of North America, the next largest producer of fine foods and its consumption. In 2016, after much positive exploratory research of the North American market, the FDA approved the product, at which point we launched six of our products into the grocery and food procure markets in the USA.

4. What has been your biggest achievement so far? 

Providing a sensible alternative to paper and plastic packaging, that extend the shelf life naturally with a much lower environmental footprint. Ovtene utilizes 60% less plastic than traditional packaging and neither water nor trees are consumed in its construction.

For a bit more information, take a look at their feature on Deli Market TVsaynotofoodwaste-ovtene-cheese-fresh-nofoodwaste-4

5. How do you measure success?

Initially we look for successful independent testing evaluations followed by positive customer feedback and retention. When our grocery accounts customers begin asking for Ovtene by name and when food producers tell us that their products get to market fresher than before, we know we are onto something.

The next level of success is measured by actual sales and penetration into the many other uses of Ovtene. As well as, when the end user realizes the nutritional value of color, smell and taste of their food that is preserved with our product, unlike any other packaging.

6. What have you learned in the process? 

We learned from food producers and customers that Ovtene can keep products fresh that we hadn’t even thought to test before, such as citrus, floral and herbs. We also learned that Ovtene could be used to overcome the Van der Waals forces of clumping in powders when packaged. Cheese producers we discovered use Ovtene in the aging process as well as the final packaging for market. We also learned that many opportunities exist from Ovtene as it can be placed into stiff containers. In addition, we learned that OTR or the oxygen transmission rate was perfect for packaging fish as recommended by the FDA.

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The pouches are more popular in the US than in Europe. And people like to see the product, so windows need to be an option in many packaging applications. Most of all, people like to do what is easiest and change is difficult, and is viewed as a personal risk for users to initiate. But, they implement the product if they see that significant savings can be attained.

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7. What advice would you give to someone trying to start a sustainable food company?

With great products comes the adrenaline of trying to do too much all at once. Stay focused and tackle the markets that you know work. The rest will fall into place. FDA and USDA approvals were important recognitions, but were an extensive process. 

8. What’s next? Anything else you want to add?

Thermoforming and injection molding, and the introduction of the next generation of Ovtene, which we call OvteneActive. EU patents are approved for this even more protective form of Ovtene.

We believe that Ovtene packaging will increase the shelf life throughout the production and distribution chain. Ovtene can help bring fresh food to under served communities and decrease food waste due to spoilage. Ovtene can decrease the risk of bacterial contamination in food and beyond.

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9. Fun question: what was the best meal you ate this week?

Appetizer: Fresh Ccup Carpaccio, cooked in lemon, pepper and olive oil.
Dinner: Barramundi, Australian Sea Bass, grilled plain served with a Sicilian Caponata.
Dessert: Almond Biscotti and Vin Santo (aged 10 or more years).

Salvatore Giglia, representative of Ovtene in North America

Food Recovery is Great, but far from Perfect

I’ve tried my fair share of seemingly-strange food combinations, but I have never thought to try combining tomatoes and chocolate in anything other than Mexican mole sauces. However, I read a story on NPR a couple weeks ago about how three Spanish chefs had created chocolate truffles with dried Nigerian tomatoes – and served them at the World Economic Forum, no less! The creations, “Bombom Kaduna,” were designed to raise awareness of the fact that 75% of Nigeria’s tomatoes are annually wasted.

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Professor Christopher Barrett of the Charles H. Dysons School of Applied Economics and Management was one of several people quoted in the article scoffing at the idea. One thing he took issue with, which I saw echoed in an op-ed in The Globe and Mail last week, is the concept of trying to use food waste to alleviate world hunger. As the latter article notes: “Hunger is what happens as a result of privation and poverty. Treating hunger through society’s waste compounds the indignity of hunger, and points us away from more permanent solutions.”

I wholeheartedly agree that food recovery is not the solution to hunger. These two articles do a good job discussing how poverty should be better addressed to combat hunger, but I also know that the problem of food waste warrants much more comprehensive strategies. First off, it seems pretty impossible to recover the over 1 billion tons of food that are “lost” every year. Secondly, most of the world’s food waste stems from so-called first world, such as the United States and European Union, while most of the world’s hungry people live in rural Asia and Africa. The logistics of transplanting the excess of one country to another isn’t feasible on a large enough scale to feed all those in need.

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That is not to say that there are not food insecure people in the first world or that food recovery is by any means a bad idea. Donating to soup kitchens and food banks is an excellent use of surplus, even if it isn’t a solution to hunger or its causes. However, there is a danger that food donors might not take any other steps to prevent waste. After all, what’s wrong with generating excess when it’s going to feed hungry people? Well, not only does it dehumanize the hungry by treating them as garbage bins; it also encourages a food system that promotes overabundance, thereby waste.

The best compromise, I believe, is one that my college practices. I am a student Food Recovery Network volunteer at the University of Rochester, and we freeze surplus from campus dining establishments to deliver to a local soup kitchen. Most importantly, we inventory the kinds of foods being donated so that the school can see what foods it can afford to cut back on. For instance, we now find ourselves donating far fewer bagels than we did four years ago, when they constituted the majority of our inventory, because the school has adjusted to the apparent lack of demand.

Food recovery is not the be-all, end-all solution to hunger or food waste. However, it’s a good step in the right direction and brings attention to these critical issues.

Eva

Preventing Waste vs. Eating Healthily: Is There a Conflict?

People need to learn how to eat better. Poor diet contributes to the two leading causes of death worldwide – heart disease and stroke – as well as a slew of other medical problems including obesity, diabetes, and even certain cancers. Without a doubt, promoting proper nutrition is one of the most important food policy focuses of our time. However, it is by no means the only issue.

I recently spoke with someone who is not entirely convinced of the importance of saving food. She understands the principle of preventing waste but cares far more about getting people to eat healthily. Her example: if a person were deciding between throwing away a half-eaten bag of potato chips or saving them, she’d say to throw them away. It’s not worth salvaging junk food that can wreak so much damage on our bodies, her logic goes. chips

As someone whose life’s mission is to fight food waste but also cares deeply about nutrition, I needed a moment to wrestle with this argument. Since I used to overeat in the name of preventing waste (here’s my reflection post about it), I know how the pretense of saving food can clash with healthy eating intentions. Many weight loss diets even explicitly say that people shouldn’t eat everything on their plates, since portion sizes tend to be excessively large. So, does trying to avoid waste mean making poor dietary choices? In a word, no. The keys are storage and smart decisions.

Back to the potato chip example: I say the eater should save the chips as leftovers. That way, the next time the person has a craving for salty, fatty food, he/she can have more chips from the bag, rather than buying a new bag (i.e. giving more money to junk food companies). Plus, with half the chips already eaten, the portion size is limited, whereas a brand new bag would present the temptation to devour all the chips at once. Alternatively, the remaining chips could be shared with friends or served at a party.

nutsBringing leftover junk food home seems like it just invites bad choices; but that’s where my “smart decisions” point comes in. Once food is in the home, it can lose some of its novelty, making it easier to moderate intake. Since the food will still be there tomorrow, there’s less temptation to overindulge now. Unhealthy cravings can be sated in moderation. Moreover, the root of the problem is buying potato chips in the first place. If you don’t want to consume so much sodium and fat, buy a healthier snack!

I realize my counterargument isn’t perfect, but neither is our food environment. Ideally, junk food wouldn’t be so prevalent, nor portion sizes so large, that we have to debate saving unhealthy food for later. Teaching people how to eat well can only go so far as long as we’re surrounded by unhealthy options.  Nevertheless, the pursuit of good nutrition does not have to undercut food waste reduction.

National Spotlight: United Kingdom

Most recent estimate of annual food waste: 15 million tonnes. About 47,000 tonnes of food surplus are redistributed and 660,000 tonnes are used for animal feed production.

As food waste has gotten more and more global attention, Britain has consistently been a source of profound reports, inspirational practices, and innovative solutions aimed at combating the problem. The face of the British anti-waste movement is WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Plan) and its “Love Food Hate Waste” campaign that has been running since 2007. Founded in 2000, WRAP collaborates with all levels of government, businesses, community organizations, trade unions, and individuals to champion sustainable waste management. Its Courtauld 2025 Commitment has set 20% reduction targets for food waste and greenhouse gas intensity of food and drink (production, distribution, consumption, etc.) in the UK over the next 10 years.

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Image courtesy of WRAP

In 2015, WRAP created the Manufacturing and Retail Working Group to develop resources and undertake research projects to analyze and improve food waste prevention practices. Just last month, the group published its report examining the current waste levels and progress in the UK with accompanying recommendations for development. Among its findings, the research produced the nonprofit’s first-ever estimate of preventable waste from the UK manufacturing and retail sectors: 56% of the 1.9 million tonnes of food that was discarded could have been eaten.  Nonetheless, less than 5% of food production in the British retail and manufacturing sectors ends up as surplus or waste, which is quite commendable. Moreover, 47,000 tonnes of surplus food were redistributed in 2015, and 660,000 tonnes were used in animal feed production. While WRAP rightfully continues to push for improvement, the UK’s progress in preventing waste so far is by no means negligible.

The “Love Food, Hate Waste” campaign is geared towards consumers, teaching people how easy it is to prevent waste at the household level. Its website of food saving tools includes a recipe search engine to use up leftover ingredients, portion and up-to-2-week meal planners, and tons of storage, cooking, and shopping tips. In addition to these resources, the LFHW mobile app offers a kitchen inventory tool to help users keep track of the food they’ve bought. The campaign references British food waste statistics, but, naturally, the tips and tools are universally relevant and useful.

London

Another strong fighter in Britain’s food waste arena is ReFood, Europe’s largest food waste recycler. The corporation collects waste from retailers and producers across the UK and converts it into biogas, electricity, and fertilizer via anaerobic digestion, providing a clean, efficient method of food waste management. In 2013, ReFood launched Vision 2020, a step-by-step plan to help the food industry prepare for a total ban on food waste landfilling by the year 2020. Far from idealistic, the campaign’s acknowledges the financial and administrative difficulties of instituting a landfill ban and accordingly offers recommendations and assistance for developing the necessary infrastructure. Furthermore, it promotes food waste education, citing “Love Food, Hate Waste” by name. ReFood’s goal is to embrace food waste as a profitable resource.

As for the private sector: Britain’s largest supermarket, Tesco, has demonstrated an impressive commitment to preventing waste. In 2013, the corporation published an extensive report on the waste generated by products sold in its stores, disclosing its food waste statistics for the first time ever. Now, the retailer annually publishes food waste data for its UK franchise – which, sadly, saw a 4% increase in waste from 2015 to 2016. Still, Tesco has been working to eliminate wasteful practices, such as Buy One Get One Free offers on fruit and vegetables. The chain also hasn’t sent any food directly to landfills since 2009. Details on the store’s other efforts can be found here.

Last September, the Food Waste (Reduction) Bill was introduced to, among other things, establish national food waste reduction incentives and require large retailers and manufacturers to cut down their waste at least 30% by 2025. Unfortunately, the proposed legislation never made it out of the House of Commons – but it wasn’t the first time that food waste was on the government agenda, and it certainly won’t be the last. In 2011, for instance, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs issued date label guidance to the food industry so as to prevent the excess of caution and confusion that generates waste.

Jolly good show, UK!

How the Psychology of Eating Behavior Can Help Explain Food Waste

A blog-keeping note: the national spotlight series is by no means over! I am just going to intersperse other posts, like this one, when inspiration strikes.

Recently, I read a study by Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology that made me reflect more on how our eating behavior leads to waste. The experiment, published in 1982, tested how variety in the color, texture, and flavor of food in a meal influenced a person’s consumption and enjoyment. Only one of the sensory properties was changed in each round of the experiment while the other two were held constant. For instance, Smarties (a candy similar to M&M’s) were used to test the influence of color because they are uniform in texture and chocolate flavor.

I won’t recap the entire process and detailed findings of the experiment, but the general conclusion was that humans eat more when offered food in varying textures, colors, or flavors. So, if given a plate of only green Smarties, we will eat fewer than if we were given a plate of mixed-color Smarties. This indicates that there is a sensory-specific satiety effect: we stop eating sooner when eating a ‘plain’ meal than when our senses are variously stimulated by a meal, even if there is no difference in the nutrition of the food to influence our actual fullness.

Another conclusion of the experiment was that “the degree of pleasantness of a food may affect whether a food will be selected for ingestion, but the amount actually ingested will then depend to a considerable extent on the satiating power of that particular food.” In other words, knowing that we like a food makes us more likely to choose to eat it but does not necessarily mean that we will eat more of it, especially if it is something filling. This is the part of the report that got me thinking about waste:

Put this effect in the context of a buffet, dining hall, or any other smorgasbord scenario where we are presented with an abundance of options. Many people erroneously start filling their plates or trays before having seen all of the available foods. When they then come across a favorite food of theirs, they add a large portion of that to their meal because they know they are going to enjoy it. They don’t generally think about how much other food they already have; they prioritize the favorite and end up with an extra large portion.

buffetAssuming they recognize their satiety (which is often difficult to do, leading to overeating), the eaters will not finish all of the food that they have taken. Whether the diners scarfed down their favorite food first or tried to save the best for last, some remnants of the superportion will be left. Of course, leftovers can be given to a friend or taken home in a doggy-bag, yet the sad truth of the matter is that many people leave the food to be thrown out. I don’t have any statistics to back it up, but I believe that people are more likely to bring home leftovers from a meal paid for a la carte than in a buffet-type setting because they feel more motivated to get their money’s worth. In restaurants, you think, “I spent $12 on that pizza, so those last three slices are $4!” When you pay a flat rate for a self-serve meal, though, you pay for ‘all you can eat,’ which is achieved once you are full.

It’s no surprise that presenting people with an abundance of food, especially food they know they like, can easily lead to waste. Nor is it shocking to read that our eating behavior is influenced by psychological at least as much as by physiological and nutritional factors. Still, the study makes an interesting read to explain the extent of this influence and reflect on its role in issues like food waste or obesity.

-Eva

National Spotlight: South Korea

Most recent estimate of annual food waste: 4.82 million tonnes in 2014

South Korea is home to one of the world’s most innovative national strategies for fighting food waste: charging its inhabitants to dispose of food waste. To use organic waste disposal bins, residents have to either pay per garbage bag or, as of 2012, according to the weight of their waste (explained below). This year alone, the price of the specialty garbage bags has gone up 30% to provide extra incentive to reduce household waste.

koreaThe “volume-based waste fee” aka pay per trash bag system was introduced in 1995. Within 10 years of the system’s implementation, South Korea’s recycling rate had increased from 15.4% to almost 50%, according to a policy bulletin from the Ministry of Environment in 2006. The government has continued to include food waste as its pursued further recycling reforms, including banning urban-generated food waste from landfills in 2005 and announcing the RFID system in 2012. Under the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) system, residents have to swipe special ID cards to open mechanized disposal bins so that they can throw out their waste. With each transaction, the bin recalculates the weight of its contents, and the disposer is billed once a month according to his or her waste contribution.

Unsurprisingly, the success of these measures over just a couple years has received international praise. According to the Strait Times, daily aggregate food waste in Seoul decreased from 3,300 tonnes to 3,181 tonnes between 2012 and 2014, and the city government is aiming to cut that to 2,318 tonnes per day by 2018. Household and restaurant food waste have fallen by 30% and 40%, respectively, PSFK reported earlier this month.

korea food2The Korean government’s focus on food waste came after years of ecological negligence, for lack of a better term. Even until 2013, most of the country’s organic waste was processed in sewage plants and then dumped into the ocean. The ‘gray water’ produced by the high liquid content of the waste devastated coastal marine life and even began leaching into soil. Although the government joined the London Convention against marine pollution in 1993, the ban on food wastewater dumping wasn’t enacted until 20 years later. Fortunately, most food waste today is recycled into compost, animal feed, or biofuel, largely thanks to government subsidies to those recycling facilities.

A final fun fact: in response to the anti-food waste trend, the company Smart Cara has started manufacturing domestic food waste processors. The appliances grind food waste into a powder that can be utilized as fertilizer or cooking fuel. With the rising fees for residential food waste disposal, sales of the processors tripled between 2013 and 2015 and continue to climb.

Kudos, Korea! 음식물 쓰레기에없는 말.

-Eva

 

Other consulted sources:

South Korea: Ban on Dumping of Food Wastewater in the Ocean Comes into Force (Library of Congress)

South Korea: Cutting Back on Food Waste (Pulitzer Center)

South Korea’s food waste reduction policies (Innovation Seeds)

National Spotlight: Denmark

Welcome to the inaugural post of my anti-food waste travel guide! Spending Easter weekend in Copenhagen and getting a glimpse into Danish food culture has inspired me to start a new (non-continuous) series of posts highlighting countries and nations taking exemplary measures against food waste. With enough promotion and consumer support, good practices from anywhere in the world can stimulate change in other countries. Since food waste is a global problem, the fight against it requires global effort.

Denmark

Most recent estimate of annual food waste: 700,000 tons, worth 11.6 billion kroner (about $1.7 billion)

CopenhagenThis small Scandinavian kingdom was named the ‘European leader in the fight against food waste’ in 2015. In just five years, Denmark was able to reduce its domestic food waste by 25%, according to the Danish Agricultural & Food Council. This achievement was made possible through efforts by the state, NGOs, and private sector.

Like much of northern Europe, Denmark is strongly committed to recycling. Among the goals set in its 2013 plan ‘Denmark Without Waste – Recycle More, Incinerate Less,’ the government pledged to increase the amount of organic waste recycled from the service sector from 17% to 60% by 2018. Household waste, which includes 260,000 tons of food each year, was also targeted in the report so that at least half would be recycled annually by 2022. To complement these objectives, the country is going to continue to focus on biogas (derived from manure and food waste) as a clean alternative fuel source. Daka Refood, for instance, collects food waste from restaurants, supermarkets, schools, manufacturers, etc. to use directly in animal feed or to convert into biogas and, in the case of used cooking oil, biodiesel. In addition to preventing the CO2 emissions otherwise generated by incineration, biogasification allows nutrients like phosphorous from organic waste to be used in fertilizer.

Another way the Danes encourage eco-friendly waste treatment is through bans and fines on landfilling. The European Environment Agency reported that in 2010 only 4% of Denmark’s waste ended up in landfills!

WeFood DenmarkArguably the most famous Danish food waste-fighting initiative, though, is WeFood, the new so-called social supermarket that deliberately sells products considered unsaleable by mainstream grocers. From ‘expired’ packaged goods to visually-imperfect produce, the perfectly edible food is being sold at discounted prices because it would otherwise be discarded. Naturally, this attracts low-income consumers, but NPR reported that most customers are actually shopping there to make a political statement against food industry wastefulness.

A similar anti-food waste pioneer is Rub & Stub, the restaurant whose menu changes daily based on donated ingredients. The volunteer chefs design meals to use excess food from Food Bank Copenhagen, grocers, farmers, food cooperatives, and bakeries, which accounts for almost one third of the restaurant’s food supply. As in WeFood, the donations are totally safe to eat but have been rejected by mainstream food retail for mainly aesthetic reasons.

Aside from word of mouth, locals as well as tourists in Denmark can find establishments like WeFood and Rub & Stub through YourLocal. The app was developed by two Copenhagen Business School students who wanted to create a platform to show people where they could find surplus food that would be destined for the dumpster. Grocery stores registered with the app simply indicate what products are nearing their sell-by dates and offer them at discounted prices. Released in May 2015, YourLocal has already reached more than 50,000 consumers, is collaborating with over 400 stores, and is spreading from its origin in Copenhagen to other Danish cities.

As a last fun fact, one of Denmark’s most popular desserts, romkugler aka rum truffles, originated as a way to use leftover baked goods! Bakers, concerned that their unsold breads, muffins, or cakes would start to taste stale, combined the leftovers with jam, rum, and chocolate into delicious little balls, typically rolled in chopped nuts or coconut. Check out an easy recipe here.

Well done, Denmark! Sig nej madspild.

-Eva

How Four Questions Can Prevent Restaurant Plate Waste

Let’s start with some numbers: according to a 2013 study by Business for Social Responsibility, at least 84% of restaurant-generated food and drink waste in the USA gets sent to landfills (a measly 1.4% was donated). That is 15.7% of the American food industry’s organic waste. In the UK, WRAP estimates that 22% of the state’s food waste is generated by restaurants, 34% of which is from customer plates. As for China, annual restaurant food waste is equivalent to 10% of national crop production.

Trying to discuss all of the ways that restaurants can cut down their food waste, especially keeping it out of landfills, would look more like a dissertation than a blog post. However, reflecting on my ample experience of eating in restaurants, I have come up with some introductory suggestions for preventing plate waste. As a first step in waste reduction, restaurants should make it their policy to have their servers ask diners these four simple questions:

“Would you like some complimentary bread to accompany your meal?”

restaurant breadRestaurant hygiene regulations state that once food has been served, it can’t be reused. In restaurants that automatically provide diners with free bread (or chips or whatever else), that means the leftovers have to be thrown away. Waiters should ask diners whether they would like bread rather than immediately placing the basket on the table. This question forces the patrons to think, “Do I really want bread? Am I going to eat it all?” Even if the diners opt for the free food, they might specify, “Yes, but only a few slices.” Ideally, not only will there be no wasted bread, but the patrons who save room by skipping bread will be more likely to finish their main course.

Moreover, having to ask for bread will discourage overeating. Many people eat free restaurant bread just because it’s there, but the request acts as a ‘hurdle’ that the diner would have to cross to get that temptation. In a world of more than 1.9 billion overweight adults and 42 million overweight children (source: WHO), every effort to combat unhealthy eating habits is crucial.

“Some more water?”

While most drink refills cost money, many restaurants in the US provide free water*. Some even go so far as to have servers circulate with pitchers and refill patrons’ glasses at no request. I always try to stop servers from refilling my almost-empty glass, and on one occasion, the server worriedly asked me, “Are you sure? I’m supposed to…” The employee seemed scared that he would get in trouble if the manager saw that my glass wasn’t filled to the brim. Instead, diners should be offered a refill so that they have a clear chance to say no.

*expect a future post about varying free water laws across the world

“With everything?” or “Any substitutions?”

Many people are embarrassed to be judged as picky eaters, so they don’t specify their orders. That means that a diner might ask for a Greek salad and leave a pile of sun-dried tomatoes on the plate when (s)he could have easily said, “A Greek salad, but without the sun-dried tomatoes, please.” By inviting the patron to make specifications, however, a waiter offers a judgment-free zone. The diner feels like modifications to the menu are expected rather than inconvenient, and ultimately there is no sad pile of unwanted food scraps on the plate.

“Would you like to box anything?”

restaurant takeoutIf a restaurant were to adopt only one of my suggestions, this one would be the best. ‘Doggy-bagging’ food is a service that not all diners are aware of or that, again, they might feel embarrassed for requesting. Fact is, even the leftover bread mentioned in the first tip can be wrapped up! Sadly, there is no guarantee that the food will get eaten once it’s taken home, since humans can be quite forgetful; but at least it’s a start. The implied encouragement to take food home might offend some people as being ‘judgmental,’ but, frankly, I think that anyone who consciously decides to waste food deserves to be judged.

As this list demonstrates, one of the keys to combatting food waste is acknowledgment and communication of preferences. Servers just assume that patrons want free bread or refills because they haven’t been told otherwise. Restaurants thus perpetuate a culture of wastefulness that relies on the abundance of cheap food and water to please customers rather than just asking them what they really want. Diners have a responsibility as well, though, to consciously make efforts to prevent waste. They- we need to recognize food as valuable, not disposable – contrary to how the spontaneous gratification at restaurants makes it seem.

Food is meant to be eaten, not left on a plate and then thrown in the garbage.

Eva

An Unexpected Opinion on Processed Meat

I am a very food safety-conscious person. Since I know how misleading eat-by and other date labels are, I rely on my senses to check whether food is still safe to consume, and I scrutinize very closely before eating. So, when I go to weekend-long ultimate frisbee tournaments, I make sure I only have non-perishable foods in my bag, as it will be sitting outside in the sun for hours on end. Nuts, energy bars, breads, peanut butter, and pretzels are my favorites. Last weekend, though, a guy on our team brought lunch provisions for everyone: loaves of bread, two tortillas espanolas (potato frittatas), a bag of tomatoes, and several packages of sliced cheeses and meats. My initial reaction was no, I’m not going to eat meat, cheese, or egg-product that has been sweltering in a bag on the beach in 25ºC heat for four hours. Then I reconsidered: Well, chorizo and salami are often kept at room temperature anyway, and smelling the cheese and tortilla will immediately prove whether they’re still good. I allowed myself to have two sandwiches (not touching the tomatoes because they weren’t washed) and found that they tasted completely fine and gave me no trouble. The story is far from exciting, but it was a really important moment for me to realize the benefits of processed food.

process2Yes, processed food. The phrase has a pretty negative connotation due to all of the health concerns associated with artificial coloring, chemical additives, high sugar and fat content, lack of freshness, etc. It brings to mind images of potato chips, Twinkies, and frozen microwave meals. I am all about promoting fresh and local products and generally avoiding junk food, but, in the interest of preventing food waste, it is important to recognize the values of food preservation. After all, these methods were developed so that people could keep and use food longer before it goes bad.

Keep in mind that preserving doesn’t have to mean industrial/chemical processing. Some of the oldest and most basic techniques for preserving meat, for instance, are still used because of the distinct flavors they create. Prosciutto and corned beef are examples of products that have been rubbed with salt or submerged in salty brine (the latter method usually means it should then be cooked to neutralize the saltiness) because salt dehydrates the bacteria that cause meat to spoil. Lots of fish and deli meats like pastrami also undergo air-drying or wood-smoking, which, as stated by The Economist, involves “carcinogens, which inhibit microbial growth; phenolics, which retard fat oxidation; and an array of sugars, acids and particulates that colour and flavour the meat.” Obviously, those carcinogens aren’t healthy for humans either, which is part of the reason to limit consumption of smoked and cured meat.

All types of cured meatAnother reason for the persistence of these techniques is that the simplicity of the meat curing process subjects it to a lot of environmental factors that can influence its taste, producing noticeable differences in flavor based on origin. Hence, one distinction between seemingly similar products like prosciutto and jamon serrano. Since humans have always been concerned with making their food last while retaining taste, examples of the history of preserving meat come from all over the world. Incans probably salted and dried slices of meat and referred to it as charqui, the namesake of jerky; European settlers brought stores of salt pork that could last up to two years on their ships; and China’s salted, fermented, and dried anfu ham dates back to the Qin Dynasty.

Alright, my research on meat preservation led me on a bit of a tangent, but back to my original point: processing isn’t a needless evil of the modern food system. It makes sense to manufacture perishables in such a way that they will keep over long-ish periods of time, especially now that the world is producing more food than it knows what to do with. In addition to preventing waste, many preservation techniques are designed to protect human health, as discussed in my previous article about pasteurization. Of course I saw the World Health Organization’s report linking colon cancer to processed meat, so, once again, the key is moderation. Appreciate the fact that you can eat a ham and cheese sandwich that has been in your bag all day (make sure you sniff it first), but don’t make bacon a staple of your diet.

A belated happy Thanksgiving,

Eva

Food Sustainability: Words to Know

At Say No to Food Waste, we talk about food and environmental ethics a lot and don’t always take the time to define the phrases we use. Sure, we have some posts entirely devoted to things like “nose to tail eating,” but there are other phrases that we use off-handedly. Moreover, there are lots of words that are seemingly synonymous – like organic and natural – that actually have very specific connotations, and it can be difficult to keep all these terms straight. We’ve compiled this little sustainability vocabulary cheat-sheet to help you learn about and navigate the world of ethical food.

Cage-free: If a carton of eggs is labeled ‘cage-free,’ that means that the hens were raised in a hen house rather than in battery cages. In battery cages, chickens are penned so close together that they can’t even spread their wings. While the cage-free label means that the animals were raised slightly more humanely, it unfortunately doesn’t ensure that they got much space, as hen houses can also be densely packed. Similarly, free-range eggs come from chickens raised in hen houses that also provide access to the outdoors – but that doesn’t guarantee outdoor time for every hen. The system isn’t perfect, but cage-free and especially free-range egg options are better than their factory-farm-sourced alternatives.

Composting

Composting: Collecting organic waste to use it as fertilizer. In addition to weeds, fallen leaves, and grass clippings, compost can include food scraps, such as rotten produce, fruit rinds and cores, coffee grounds, moldy baked goods, and crushed eggshells. Composting is a great way to utilize inedible or unappetizing food to sustain soil rather than just throwing it out. Moreover, it keeps waste out of landfills, which are literally massive piles of garbage expected to disintegrate over time.

Doggy-bag: The English colloquialism when asking to take food home from a restaurant. It differs from ‘takeout’ in that it only applies to leftovers: you wouldn’t go to a Domino’s and order a pizza in a doggy bag. While the phrase implies that the food is going to be fed to a pet instead of eaten later by the diner, doggy-bagging is just an easy way to prevent waste and get your money’s worth out of your meal.

Farm to Fork/Table: Another term for the local food movement, which promotes buying food from regional producers because it’s fresher, doesn’t require the same amount of energy to be preserved and transported, and is otherwise generally assumed to be produced sustainably. This assumption comes from the idea that local farmers don’t use GMOs or hormones, keep their animals in factory farm conditions, or raise their crops on pesticides because, unlike national suppliers, they don’t have to produce mass quantities to send across the country. Many people also choose to ‘buy local’ to support their region’s economy.

Food Bank: Charitable organizations that collect food to provide it to people struggling with food insecurity (see below) for free. They typically act as middle-men between the restaurants, bakeries, stores, or farms that have donated the food and groups, such as soup kitchens, that then give or serve it to those in need. Donated foods are usually frozen (and then prepared by the soup kitchen) or non-perishable.

Food Insecurity: The state of not having reliable access to a steady supply of nutritious food. Food-insecure people aren’t necessarily starving, but the poor quality of food that they can afford can still lead to malnutrition. Food security is a question not just of personal income but of location: lots of low-income or minimally-populated areas don’t offer affordable, fresh produce so much as fast food joints or convenience stores selling heavily-processed packaged foods. A huge ethical paradox plaguing our world is that thousands of tons of edible produce gets thrown out when it could be feeding thousands of people suffering from food insecurity.

coffee beansFair-Trade: Fairtrade International puts its label on food products to indicate that they have met the organization’s lengthy labor and sustainability standards. The labor regulations are meant to ensure that workers producing the food haven’t been exploited, while the main environmental prerequisite is a pledge to reduce carbon emissions. Coffee and chocolate are the two products most commonly associated with fair-trade because their farmers are frequently exploited due to the high global demand and a lack of strong national labor laws.

Freegan: Someone who scrounges for edible food in dumpsters, usually behind restaurants or grocery stores, to make a statement about food waste. What differentiates a freegan from a regular dumpster-diver is that the former is primarily motivated by ethics whereas the latter is typically desperate for food due to poverty. Freegans highlight the fact that millions of tons of perfectly good food get thrown out before they even reach consumers due to excessively cautious health standards or the obsession with freshness.

GMOs: In terms of food, genetically-modified organisms are products that come from plants or animals whose DNA has been artificially manipulated. The goal of genetic engineering is usually to improve food’s nutritional content, to make the organisms resistant to specific viruses and/or pesticides, or to increase crop yield. There is a lot of controversy surrounding GMO’s, mainly the question of whether they cause long-term health effects due to the fact that the food has been altered unnaturally. Those concerned should look for “non-GMO” or “GMO-free” labels.

Locavore: Someone who “only” eats locally-sourced food (see ‘farm to table’).

Nose to tail: To quote my aforementioned article, “nose-to-tail refers to the practice of eating as much of an animal as possible to minimize waste.” So, in addition to traditional cuts of muscles and fat, animal organs, entrails, and extremities are prepared as food. Nose-to-tail can be used to describe the range of food offered by a butcher or chef or willing to be eaten by a consumer.

produce onionsOrganic: Officially, organic foods are those that haven’t been subject to any synthetic manipulation. While both are free of artificial flavoring and coloring, preservatives, genetic manipulation, and radiation, foods labeled as organic or natural differ in that the latter don’t tell you anything about the kinds of pesticides, fertilizers, or hormones used. For instance, crops can be considered organically raised if they were fertilized with compost or manure but not with chemicals, whereas natural foods include both.

Sustainability: Environmental sustainability refers to engaging in practices that don’t squander the planet’s resources at a rate at which they can’t replenish themselves. When it comes to food, it essentially means raising crops and animals in an environmentally- and ethically-responsible way. Sustainable agriculture includes practices like crop rotation to prevent soil depletion, biological pest control so that chemical insecticides don’t contaminate groundwater, and managing animal manure so that it doesn’t pile up and release excessive greenhouse gases. Since there are no industry-set guidelines to certify food as ‘sustainable,’ consumers can’t check for any labels that confirm a product’s claim to sustainability.

Vegan: A person who doesn’t eat any animal products: dairy, meat, seafood, eggs, honey, and most gelatin are all no-no’s. Vegetarians, on the other hand, just don’t eat meat or seafood, while pescatarians do eat fish but not meat. People usually elect these lifestyles based on ecological concerns, animal welfare ethics, and/or religion.

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