Team:Groningen/Stop the food waste initiative


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Stop the food waste initiative

The amounts of food thrown away each day globally are tremendous - hundreds millions of tons, adding up to 1.3 billion tons of food thrown away yearly [1]. Much of the food is thrown away in the production process, even though big part of it is good to eat; the bananas are too straight, the potatoes not round enough. We, as consumers, can do little about this, except maybe for electing politicians who would care for such issues. However, in the developed world, much food is thrown away by us, at our homes.

Living in big cities, we lost the relationship with our food that humans used to have for generations, and we often buy half-processed food products to prepare them fast and eat in a hurry. We know a food product has gone bad once there's mold on it, but many of us just use the best-before dates as indicators of food freshness and edibility. The best-before dates are there for us informing us about the quality of our food, as it would seem, so nothing more simple, right?


We had expiration dates, and they can still be found on many food products. Expiration dates told us the minimal date that our food, if stored properly, could have gone bad. But Best Before dates, now that is something different. Best before dates refer to food quality, not if it is still good to eat, or not. Now, many of the readers might think they want good quality food, so that's what the date is for. Unfortunately, that's wrong again. Food quality might refer to anything: the colour of your yoghurt, the size of your corn flakes. The yoghurt might turn a bit less pink over time, but it doesn't change it's still perfectly fine to get eaten. Still, many consumers will throw away food getting close to the best before dates as "gone bad".
According to the UK Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), 33% percent of all food produced is wasted along the chill chain or by the consumer. At the same time, a large number of people get sick every year due to spoiled food. Hilary Benn, former British Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, claimed in 2009 [2]:

The other issue is the "if stored properly" phrase. You will find information about storing your food on every package. The food is controlled very precisely on it's way from factory to the store, and in the store. Then we pick it up, buy it, take it home - and there the non-controllable conditions start. It can make a difference if your food travelled with us only 15 minutes before we put it in our fridge, or freezer, or if it took two hours.

Our iGEM Groningen 2012 team wanted to come up with an alternative solution. We want to employ bacteria which would sense when your food product has gone bad - and communicate it with colour. Similar systems, based on pH or chemical reactions, have been proposed for milk and fish.
So, we decided to try with meat.

Why meat?
Meat is a major cause of food poisoning. It might not be easy to tell if your meat is still fresh. Also, meat is relatively expensive compared to other food products, so many consumers buy it in bulk, and refrigerate or freeze part for later. Experienced cooks often have stickers handy to write a date when the meat first arrived and to know how long it stays in the fridge (or freezer). But not many of us, consumers, do so, we rely on those due dates stamped on the packages.
As the result, much of the food gets thrown away - even if it is still perfectly edible. A sticker - not with the date, but showing the current state of food freshness, like the Food Warden - could be the solution to both unnecessary food waste, as food poisonings.

Raising awareness about food waste is important - not only at home, but also in the industry. We only have one planet, and we need to start to be smarter about our food production and waste if we want the food industry to be sustainable with the growing human population. At iGEM Groningen, we would like to ask you to try a simple experiment and write down every food product you throw away because it's expired, or you're not sure if it's still good, and see how much the list grows over a month.
Changing the world might seem hard, but everyone can change their own habits at their own homes; and change the world one fridge at a time.

More about food waste:
- Tristram Stuart's page
- Fact Sheet: Food Waste in the Netherlands
- Voedselafval — European Environment Agency (EEA)
- Wikipedia on Food Waste

[1] Gustavson, Jenny; Cederberg, Christel; Sonesson, Ulf; van Otterdijk, Robert; Meybeck, Alexandre (2011). Global Food Losses and Food Waste
[2] Rachel Shields (2009). Kitchen bin war: tackling the food waste mountain