Professor Michele Antonio Fino from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy explains to the Perishable Pundit why he believes disregarding cosmetic standards when selecting fresh produce is the solution to the problem of food waste currently affecting Europe in particular
The University of Gastronomic Sciences has been a member of our University Interchange Programme in New York since 2012. The unique perspective of this Italian university’s emphasis has led to some of the most thought-provoking presentations at the events in both New York and London. Its professors have given such luminary presentations as these:
Knowing that the University’s Professor Fino was thinking deeply regarding the area of food waste, we were intrigued to have him share his thoughts. We asked Gill McShane, managing editor of Pundit sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS UK, to find out more:
Q: At the New York Produce Show and Conference 2015 you gave a presentation about the research and innovation projects that the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy, carries out with Italian and International food industries. Can you give us an overview of that talk?
A: First of all, I should point out that I’m a legal scholar, not a botanist or philosopher. I presented examples of why we think food and fruit systems require a multidisciplinary approach. I analysed some of the relevant topics, such as the amount of food waste that’s produced in Europe, and tried to make people appreciate how we can approach the problem. There are many different points of view to contend with, from the economical to agronomical to philosophical and, ultimately, the legal point of view.
Food waste is a big issue in Europe and it relates to production, and particularly the cosmetic standards imposed on fruits and vegetables, which are not directly linked to safety or sanitary issues but simply marketing. Food waste is a problem that can be fully understood and likely solved only by a multidisciplinary approach.
Q: What research have you carried out on food waste, and what have you found?
A: Currently we produce enough food for the population we expect to live across the world in 2050 (9 billion people). Evidently, we waste a lot. At the moment, almost 40% of food is wasted at the point of production because of marketing and cosmetic standards. Another 20% of food is wasted through domestic consumption. We need to reduce food waste, among other strategies, to cope with the increasing population on the planet.
Under the legal point of view, this calls for two interventions: Firstly, we cannot have purely cosmetic standards regulating the market anymore, and, secondly, we need a serious education on food. If people were better aware of what they are doing when they waste food – in terms of the loss of energy, nutrients, value – we could have long-lasting change, even if it is slow to implement, which could really reduce this problem.
We cannot be that innocent not to think that waste is a part of the market’s economy. It’s a part of the functioning of the market. But if we want to carry on living in this world, we’d like people to appreciate that food is not purely a commodity. Food can be produced from a commodity, of course, but food is more a common good than a commodity because food embeds values, tradition and history.
Food comes at the end of a very complex process and it’s really very dangerous to treat it poorly. Food is not like any other branch of the economy, and waste is harmful for the survival of the planet. If we waste a paper box or some clothes, it’s not the same thing. We are trying with our proposals under the legal framework and our involvement in European Commission activities to bring about this point of view – to think about food in a different way in order to change the system.
Q: What do you propose should be done to tackle food waste?
A: Our proposals are firstly about the evolution of cosmetic standards. Currently, we live by United Nations (UNECE) standards, or market-based (e.g. EUREPGAP) standards, in terms of the dimension, colour, and shape of our fruit and vegetables. And we have large losses. It has nothing to do with the safety or sanitary condition of produce picked from the trees, only the cosmetic aspect.
In my opinion it’s not acceptable that we have cosmetic standards fixed by an intergovernmental agency, like the UN, and it’s important that retailers, as part of their social responsibility efforts, gradually abandon these standards. It’s not possible to programme trees to produce apples of a certain dimension, shape or colour. The seasons change and every year it is different, plus the age of the apple tree changes too. Whether an apple is big or small doesn’t affect its taste. Taste depends mainly on the cultivar, and it is up to the consumer to decide which they prefer.
Q: How can we go about changing these cosmetic standards?
A: We can bring about change in the classroom. We can change the education of people so when they go to a supermarket they express an interest in buying fruit that’s not perfectly shaped or coloured. They will ask for more natural looking produce – fruit that hasn’t been selected or treated to look like the way the traders expect fruit to look like. Then we would see a change in the offer of the supermarkets.
If the majority of consumers want fruit that is safe and they don’t care about the shape, the retailer will change its offer. It’s a normal market reaction – they will adapt to what the consumers want. Take a look at what’s happening currently in the marketing of wines. There has been an explosion in the trend towards natural wines, and this can happen in the fresh fruit market too.
People are more and more interested in buying what they want and not just what is served to them. If we work on education and the true value of fresh fruit, and not just cosmetics, then we would have real change. We can’t just rely on TV programmes or the food will of chefs like Jamie Oliver and his Ministry of Food campaign.
The best way to reduce food waste is to educate children to choose good food and to eat better. Changing daily eating habits is a fantastic way to reduce food waste because all the ingredients and nutrients that we have at our disposal can be consumed and appreciated by people.
Q: Other than education, how else do you propose food waste could be tackled?
A: Every country, like France has recently done, could enforce laws to promote food waste reduction. And by promoting, I don’t mean they should introduce punishments. In our opinion, positive education is more effective and long lasting. Restaurants, distribution chains and any food-related economic sector should all find advantages in taking part in the fight against food waste, such as tax reductions in exchange for food waste reduction policies.
Q: Are there any good examples of reducing waste that could be developed further?
A: An idea that was launched some years ago in the UK is a great way to deal with food waste. It’s called The Pig Idea, and it aims to collect food waste from the kitchens of private citizens to feed to pigs. It’s a campaign that was run in the UK during World War II as a way to not waste any edible food. Tristram Stuart, an environmentalist campaigner, and his companions resurrected that idea and turned it into a modern version based on cooking leftover food to make it safe for pigs and to guarantee the safety of pork meat.
This is fantastic example, but unfortunately more than half of the European Union doesn’t allow the distribution of this example because they do not allow pigs to be fed food waste. But it’s a clear example of what should be done at a legal level to reduce food waste if it was introduced into European law.
Q: How long do you think it might take to bring about change?
A: It depends on the intensity of the effort and the means to enforce educational goals. Evidently, if it’s only a small university in Italy pushing the cause, it will take decades. But if a government took it seriously enough, because it’s economically interesting, we could see real change.
People eating better today means people are less likely to be ill tomorrow. In Europe, especially, this is something the governments should take into consideration. In the US, if you eat bad food you have to pay for your health care, so it’s not so much of a problem for the government. In the UK or Italy, where our health systems tend to be universal, what people eat is a problem of the individual but also the state. We need education in all schools, especially primary schools. It’s absolutely vital and it has to be enforced for the sustainability of our businesses and food production systems tomorrow.
We think everyone has a role to play; everyone is on the same battlefield. Governments should enforce it through public institutions. Celebrity chefs can also promote ways to cook that offer great advantages for your health, your pocket (by spending less on meat), the environment and the planet. People need to appreciate that you can eat well, and also consume refined food, but at the same time save the planet. It’s definitely possible to make changes that are good for you and the planet.
Q: Alongside the WHO’s recent guidelines about processed meat consumption, there has been much press lately about the environmental impact of meat production on the planet. With these key messages circulating, do you think the time has never been more ripe to get more fresh fruits and vegetables on plates?
A: Meat is a big issue but we try to have a balanced opinion. There are many areas on the planet where pretty much only grass can grow, and the most efficient way to transfer that crop (which is not directly edible for humans) into something that’s noble and good for humans is to produce meat. This is a balanced approach to meat that we definitely have to look at, and call for a reduction of meat produced through intensive breeding activities.
What the WHO said a few weeks ago is nothing new. Consuming a high quantity of meat has bad results for our gut and particularly cancer of the gut. On the other hand, meat is not something that’s bad per se. Its effects on the environment and on our health depend on how it’s produced – whether it’s intensive or not intensive – and on the quantity and the regularity of its consumption.
A lot depends on the model of nutrition in to which it is inserted too. The diets of long living people on this planet include meat but in very small quantities. Meat just needs a different balance. We have to treat meat unlike other commodities. We have to reduce meat in favour of a diet with more vegetables, especially fresh rather than processed. This is a big task for the fresh vegetable market. Already, there is big gap between consumption in the north and south of Europe.
For example, in the UK, it’s not acceptable that fresh meat is cheaper than fresh vegetables. But the cost of vegetables can be higher than processed food and meat too. When I say we have to abolish cosmetic standards for produce, this is also what I am referring to. We have to allow people to find fresh vegetables that are available in the quantity and at the price they can afford. Reviewing our consumption of meat is good for our health, the planet and our pockets. It is another example of what we have to do at a global level to improve health.
Q: What do you hope delegates took away from your presentation in New York? What did you hope to inspire in them?
A: A different point of view about fresh fruits and vegetables and an opportunity to look at food and land in a different way. I’d hoped listeners would simply reflect on aspects that they may not have thought about before.
The Perishable Pundit:
There is little question that when governments intervene in markets to restrict supply, it is often done at the behest of industry members who would like to see prices rise. Those of us old enough to remember these things will recall that it was during the administration of that great free-marketer, Ronald Reagan, that the important national issue of whether California kiwifruit growers should be restricted from selling “Fans” and other misshapen fruit was answered in the affirmative. And, indeed, the very first issue of PRODUCE BUSINESS, over 30 years ago, contained a lengthy debate as to the merits of citrus prorate.
So, we would be inclined to allow the free sale of all produce without regard to cosmetic limitations.
Still, if you read the link to the UN standards for pears contained in the story, it is hard to imagine that these rather loose standards, including three separate grades, are really stopping many pear sales – and they only apply to internationally traded fruit.
Indeed, there is something amiss with the good professor’s statistics. Competent commercial produce growers do not waste 40% of the fruit. We have never seen a good statistic, but if you go to a top notch production site run by, say, Paramount or a top Sunkist grower or any of the big Washington state apple and pear shippers, almost everything seems to be harvested and shipped to market..
The product is grown to fresh standards, but what doesn’t make those standards is quite small and then is often sold for freezing, canning or processing.
So where this 40% number comes from or what it means will be very interesting to learn. It must apply to either very low value crops or crops that are grown very distant from markets so it is only worth shipping them if they are top quality.
When field waste does happen it may not always be right to think of it as waste. If such plants are turned over and left in the soil it can play a part in keeping the soil rich and fertile.
And we confess that we are not quite sure why waste in food is so uniquely bad. If there is waste in packaging and that waste means trees are cut down, isn’t that bad too? If there is waste in clothing so we have to grow more cotton, doesn’t that matter?
Barring government intervention, we are not certain that it makes sense to speak of excessive waste. To avoid waste costs money, and whether it makes sense to invest that money to reduce waste, depends on the economics of the situation.
We have no objection to educational programs to inform people about the value of food apart from appearance. But the appreciation of beauty is acceptable too, and if people wish to buy an apple because it is lovely, that seems quite reasonable.
In addition it seems to us that food waste is just one problem; there are others. We don’t allow animal spinal cords to be fed to cattle, for example, because eating certain parts of animals has been implicated in the spread of mad cow disease. Now there are pros and cons to everything, but these rules were put in place for a reason and can’t be casually dismissed.
Still, we are open to being influenced and to different ways of thinking. Indeed what is fantastic about these live events is the opportunity to engage with people who think differently than you do.
It is a way of becoming more knowledgeable, of thinking more broadly and that expanded thought process can lead to success in business and in life.