Team:Groningen/Stop the food waste initiative


Stop the food waste initiative

The amount of food that is thrown away each day globally is tremendous - hundreds of millions of tons, adding up to 1.3 billion tons of food thrown away yearly [1]. Most of the food is thrown away in the production process, even though a large part of it is good to eat; the bananas are too straight, the potatoes are not round enough. We, as consumers, can do little about this, except for electing politicians who would care for such issues. There is, however, a lot of food 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. 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 informing us about the quality of our food as it seems, simple enough, right?


We had expiration dates, and they can still be found on many food products. Expiration dates told us the minimal date in which 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" - even a couple of days before the date itself!
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 you for only 15 minutes before you put it in your 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 of it for later. Experienced cooks often have stickers handy for writing the date when the meat first arrived and to know how long it stayed in the fridge (or freezer). But not many of us, consumers, do so. We rely on those due dates stamped on the packages.
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.
We have been contacted by the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority, who said

Your research can give a new impulse to the ever emerging need to know and preferably signal when food starts to spoil.

What can you do?
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 you to try a simple experiment and write down every food product you throw away because it's expired, or if you're not sure if it's still good, and see how much the list grows over a month.

There are a couple of things, though, that you can do to reduce household food waste. One of the ways to achieve this is to learn how to properly store your food. Did you know that if you keep lettuce in water, like flowers, it will last twice as long as than when kept in the fridge? Another way is to learn how to re-use the things you normally throw away. Apple peel can make very nice tea flavoring, and the leftover carrot pulp from your homemade carrot juice can be used to bake carrot cake. There are plenty of examples on the internet, if you want to look for them - we listed a couple in the links section below.

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
- Love Food Hate Waste
- Website with tips how to reduce food waste at home
- Popular cooking blog 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