When you hear “food supply chain”, you probably think in terms of farmers and (super)markets – at least we did, before we realized how long it takes before the agricultural produce lands in our (reusable!) bags. What happens in between the farmers and the supermarkets? Where and how does the processing and the packaging take place? What impact do food factories have on producing and, hopefully, reducing food waste? These questions are central to understanding the mechanisms driving our consumption and, in the bigger picture, the global food waste.
We searched our Choiceful network and found an employee of one of the biggest Dutch food factories. Our source agreed to share insights into their everyday work on condition of anonymity. The information the source shared may not be top-secret, yet some of it is… spicy. And probably would not serve the food factory’s main client very well.
Enjoy delving into supermarkets’ little secrets with Choiceful.
– Could you tell me where you work and what is your role there?
– I work for one of the biggest factories which packs, produces, and sells fruit, vegetables, and meal packages for one of the biggest supermarket chains in the Netherlands. I am a stock manager of the packaging material and problem analyst.
– Could you explain to our readers a little bit about the food supply chain in the Netherlands? Where does the food you buy come from?
– Our supply chain is fixed. We always work with the same farmers, we have contracts with some for more than 30 years already, so it is always based on a contract. After we find a business partner we always ask for so-called monsters, so small samples of their produce. We also always go there to check the food: what the plantations look like, if the energy source is sustainable, do the farmers recycle water – this is also really important for us. If they are unable to do it but they are willing to innovate, we invest in our growers to help them to maintain and increase the sustainability of their production. As much as we can, we buy our products in the Netherlands because we believe it is important to buy local to improve our own economy. But, of course, some fruit, like exotic fruit or citruses are impossible to buy in the Netherlands. Such products we buy and transport from all over the world to the Netherlands. And for those international supplies, we do not only buy their products but we invest back in them via our foundation. We are building schools in Thailand for our growers’ children, so we improve their lives, too.
– That’s really cool!
– Yes, I find it super cool. And we always work with the same growers so we know the quality we are getting. We also require certain quality and we know it is going to be fulfilled. And we always know where the fruit and vegetables are coming from – in contrary to the situation if we were buying on short-term contracts. For example, with avocados, we need to know whether they are coming from a fair trade farm, we find that very important. Now we have a special team that is doing research on sustainability. This team is working constantly. For example now, our Dutch herb growers are working on farms where plants are only standing in water. So it’s no more in the soil, only in water. Thanks to this, we use exact amounts of water necessary for these plants to grow – so there is no more water waste. In a factory, we are also recycling water, which I find very important, especially now, with climate change.
– What’s the general perception of food waste in your company?
– We try to reduce waste to zero which is not always possible. We are also bringing fruit to food banks. There are requirements for that, too, of course: these products cannot have any logos, any stickers of any company names, so we cannot do it every time. Sometimes, it is already packed, and then we cannot sell it to the market either.
– Did the idea of reducing food waste pop up organically in your company or are you obeying to some Dutch laws regarding the issue?
– I do not know that. I do think there are some regulations but I do not really know. If they are, I do not think they are very strict because I know companies where food waste is huge. Also supermarkets. Supermarkets are the ones that throw so much away.
– Can you tell us why?
– The supermarkets only accept products that can still stay in a fridge for at least a week. From us, the products go to the distribution center, from the distribution center, to the supermarkets, and then they still stay in the supermarket so we need to be sure they will not go bad.
Even if it is not rotten yet but it is too ripe, we cannot sell it to the supermarket anymore because we need to take the delivery time into consideration. The supermarkets can only sell products that need to stay good for some time after purchase. And if that time is coming and the products will only be good the next day, you mostly have a lot of discounts but the next day it will all be thrown away.
It is especially about meat. Meat is not really going to go bad anyway because of all the preservatives… but the production of meat has the highest price in terms of water or land use, so throwing it away is a big waste.
– You also mentioned that you supervise the quality of the crops. Besides the sustainability part, do you have specific measurements of what the fruit is supposed to look like?
– Yes, we do have that. Because we are working for one of the biggest supermarket chains in the Netherlands which is known for always the best quality. So for the best quality… for example, you have a few types of tomatoes and they are all different. Some have 2-4 cm diameter, others from 5-8 cm, so we do have the requirements about the measurements, the weight, the colour, the firmness.. for example, with soft fruit, like blueberries or raspberries, they have to be firm, but not too firm. We have a laboratory that measures how firm the fruit is. But these are not really our requirements, those are our client’s requirements and we need to respect them.
– Who is responsible for checking the quality?
– This is a whole chain. The farmers need to check the quality before they send the produce to us. We also have agreements that if a big percentage – say, bigger than 5% – of the products which we get does not reach our criteria, they are going to pay much, much less, so they have to be careful with what they are sending to us.
– And what about fruits that are not in the right shape. If you get more than 5%, what do you do?
– There is a special line now in our supermarket where you can buy those “second-class’” products. They are sold as not perfect fruits and vegetables for way cheaper. And we are also selling them to the markets if we cannot sell to supermarkets.
It can also happen that something happens to the products but it is not really because of the grower – for example, all the fresh fruit and vegetables, they need to stay in a cool room from the moment they are picked up. So when they are being transported, it needs to be in a cool cell truck, and when they are coming into the factory, they need to stay in a cool cell. But if there is a leakage in the truck and it is not maintaining the temperature, it can happen that all the products coming inside are already rotten. And then it is not really the growers’ fault, but it also is not our fault.
– And what happens to these fruit and vegetables?
– We are trying to throw away as little as possible. It is, of course, impossible to minimize to zero, because we cannot sell rotten vegetables to anyone. We used to sell rotten vegetables to the ZOO because the animals can still eat that, but we do not have this agreement anymore. For the ZOO, the products need to be segregated carefully, you know, only vegetables and fruit, and not other kind of waste, and there were always plenty of mistakes, it was not working out. But if a mistake like this happens, we can sell the products that are not rotten to the people selling fruit and vegetables on the markets. So, then it is lower quality, but the prices are more affordable, which is really important for poorer people or families with many children.
We are also selling to the bio-gas companies, to make natural methane from products which cannot be eaten by any human or animal anymore. To gas companies, or to soil fertilizer companies.
– Like compost?
– Yes. All to produce as little waste as possible.
– What is your personal opinion on food waste?
– I think food waste is huge globally. And it is caused by our lifestyle. We are used to getting anything we want in the supermarket so we tend to overbuy. Here, in the Netherlands, there is currently more food than we could eat in five years. And, of course, nothing can stay for five years… so I think food waste is a huge problem but not one that can be easily solvable, except for embracing places like markets where food is affordable for those that cannot buy it in the supermarket. There is less waste and people who need food can reach it. But it is not possible to send this food to famine-struck countries on other continents because such food will not survive transportation. I know that in Europe there is a growing movement of freegans. They only eat food that was thrown away by the supermarkets, only things they find in trash bins.
– What do you think about them?
– I think they are doing a good job. It is a smart way of living – they do not pay much for food – and they take stuff that would otherwise be thrown away. So it is like all those second hand movements, better buy second-hand than another cheap thing from China, you know. Only that food will not stay in our oceans for 2000 years, but this water is still used to produce foodstuff. Food factories cause a lot of pollution, and it all has impact on our climate and our planet, so better to reduce that impact. Freegans are doing something good.