One-fifth of fresh food lost and wasted before they reach consumers: Study

Vegetables and fruits make up the majority of food lost and wasted, at 49 per cent. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Close to one-fifth of imported and locally farmed fresh produce here is lost along the food supply chain every year, amounting to a loss of $2.54 billion, a study conducted by the Singapore Environment Council (SEC) and consultancy firm Deloitte Singapore has found.

Two million tonnes of fresh produce are imported to Singapore each year, while less than 10 per cent of food is produced locally.

The study found that the one-fifth of food that is lost and wasted translates to 393,000 tonnes of vegetables, fruits, fish, seafood and eggs that are spoiled and damaged during the post-harvest stage, storage, packaging and transportation.

These include food wastage when food close to their best-before dates and vegetables that look unappealing are left on the shelves and thrown away.

More than 65 per cent of the 393,000 tonnes are lost in the importation and distribution stages.

The study said the main causes of food loss are poor disease and pest management in farms and warehouses, over-importing, a broken cold chain management, and inadequate infrastructure to prevent food spoilage.

This is the first food waste study that examines food loss and waste from farm to market.

To put together the study, SEC and Deloitte Singapore looked at existing local and international research on food loss and waste, and also interviewed more than 30 key stakeholders in the local food supply chain from May to August this year.

SEC's executive director Jen Teo said there is a tendency for buyers to over-import food because of competitive pricing and the desire to meet consumers' demands for high-quality food.

Ms Isabella Huang-Loh, the council's chairman, added: "Buyers will import more potatoes than needed to feed a population of 5.4 million. Everyone wants to compete with one another for price, but it leads to more perishables lost in the process."

The study emphasised that an unbroken cold chain from farm to table is needed to maintain the quality of fresh produce and avoid pest infestation.

Mr Rayson Ng, Deloitte Singapore's risk advisory director, said: "A wholesale centre is housed in an open-air, humid setting. We realised that the shelf life of the vegetables can be lengthened if the wholesale centre were to be in a temperature-controlled environment. Or cold chain facilities can be set up beside the centre."

Vegetables and fruits make up the majority of food lost and wasted, at 49 per cent.

To save more perishables, Ms Teo said that there needs to be more coordination and communication between each player in the local supply chain.

"Now, the whole supply chain is fragmented and everyone operates in silos. With more coordination, everyone can work together to ensure that all the harvested food will be consistent in quality."

Ms Huang-Loh added that the $2.54 billion lost can otherwise be used to build efficient logistic companies, create jobs in the fresh food supply chain and create innovations to prevent food loss.

Mr Ng said: "If we can cut down on food loss, (the saved food) could be our fourth 'food basket'. This can help us in improving the country's food resilience and security."

Currently, imported food, local farms and food grown overseas make up the country's three "food baskets", with a focus on the latter two to achieve Singapore's goal of producing 30 per cent of its food needs by 2030.

In another part of the study, 1,002 individuals took part in an online consumer survey about their food storage habits, purchasing patterns and tendency to discard food.

The survey found that one-third of the respondents throw away more than 10 per cent of their food every week, amounting to $258 worth of food wasted in one household annually.

Eight in 10 respondents do not understand the difference between labels such as "use-by", "best-before" and "date of expiry".

"When the food almost reaches its 'use-by' or 'best-before' date, it does not always mean that the food is expired. But consumers don't understand that," said Ms Huang-Loh.

Mr Ng said: "In other countries, the two labels mean that if the food reaches its 'use-by' date, the quality and flavour of the food is lowered, but it could still be edible."

He suggested that food packaging companies provide a short explanation on the labels for food that can remain edible beyond its use-by date, until it reaches its expiry date.

In a joint response to the SEC study, the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) and the National Environment Agency (NEA) said the findings on the drivers of food loss and waste will be useful for NEA when developing programmes to engage stakeholders on food loss and waste reduction.

Moving forward, NEA will also be implementing mandatory requirements for new developments which are expected to generate large amounts of food waste. These developers will need to allocate and set aside space for on-site food waste treatment in their design plans submitted from 2021, and implement on-site food waste treatment from 2024.

SEC will discuss the study's findings and explore solutions with industry players and experts on Aug 27 at the SEC Convention and Singapore Environmental Achievement Awards, which recognise organisations that have exemplary environmental practices.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.