Earlier this year, the Pacific Coast Food Waste Commitment (PCFWC) released two new years of surplus food data from its retail signatories. It’s an important milestone for the public-private partnership, as the PCFWC is only the second international food waste commitment to have built a collaborative dataset like this. It’s also important for ReFED, as the data is helping to improve our own retail estimates in the Insights Engine.
Retail surplus rates are the percent of food in each food department in grocery stores that does not get sold. Unsold food not only represents significant lost value for a retailer, but it also carries an environmental burden in terms of wasted resources and unnecessary emissions, a social burden if the food is edible but does not get donated, and a logistics/cost burden to coordinate disposal. For all these reasons, many grocery retailers have made commitments to reduce food waste in their operations and some have joined the PCFWC, to work with their industry peers in a pre-competitive framework to increase their impact. And as these companies track business-level progress against those commitments, ReFED is able to track system-level progress towards reducing that surplus.
Tracking progress at any level can be difficult. It requires first a reliable baseline, and then regular measurements over time using a consistent methodology. ReFED has served as a resource partner to the PCFWC to facilitate standardized measurement and reporting, with the ultimate goal of being able to monitor efforts and enable signatories to strategically plan further food waste reduction activities.
PCFWC retail signatories have now reported data for 2019, 2020, and 2021, which allows for year-over-year comparison. And because the signatories represent over 50% market share in the Pacific Coast region, their data can be aggregated into a single regional average that serves as an industry benchmark, while keeping the data from any one business completely anonymous. It’s a major advance that provides businesses with a critical view to determine where to focus their waste reduction efforts – and it can benefit retailers across the country, not just those in the Pacific Coast region or who are signatories of the PCFWC.
For ReFED, the significance of this progress in reporting is possibly even more exciting. The PCFWC retail surplus data represents the only U.S. retail food waste measurement that is repeated consistently, and it perfectly aligns with ReFED data models that estimate overall food waste in the retail sector for the whole country. Until now, we’ve relied on a USDA study of supermarket shrink rates for fresh foods that was methodologically rigorous but represented a single point in time in 2011-12, and a FMI - The Food Industry Association report that had a large sample size but was discontinued in 2010 and was intended to measure theft and shoplifting rather than loss and waste. With these new metrics that actually show change over time1, we’re able to reflect changes the retail industry is making in our national model – making the Insights Engine’s Food Waste Monitor more accurate and Solutions Database forecasts more realistic.
Some limitations remain. PCFWC signatories, who have also committed to food waste reduction and are located in states with progressive policies around organics management, are likely “high performers,” and using their data may underestimate what’s actually happening at a national level. Nevertheless, we will be improving these estimates moving forward by calculating weighted average rates based on each retailer’s respective market share and eventually expanding the PCFWC model nationwide in order to capture more representative reporting.
The more businesses that contribute to these datasets, the more accurate and representative they are, and the better they can serve as benchmarks over time. Beyond retail, we’re excited to be moving forward with reporting pilots in the Manufacturing and Hospitality and Foodservice sectors, with the goal of soon having the same progress-over-time benchmarks for those businesses.
Please reach out to [email protected] if you’re interested in learning more about our methodology or about joining the PCFWC initiative.
1 What changes do we see in the data based on introducing this new source?
- The PCFWC unsold food rates are significantly lower than USDA and FMI rates used previously, so the update launched earlier this year in April shows lower estimates of national surplus from the retail sector in every year displayed than what was shown in the previous launch. To emphasize, we believe this change to be a function of improved measurement and reporting, rather than progress on food waste reduction by the sector.
- Focusing on just the years for which we have direct data (2019-2021) is where we might expect to see changes that would actually reflect progress in food waste reduction. There is a slight decrease in retail surplus, but PCFWC retailers have anecdotally noted that they do not expect to see much change in surplus volumes from retail during these years; any reduction that might be seen is largely a function of reduced supply, since the pandemic disrupted supply chains and made it difficult to keep shelves stocked. However, since some normalcy has returned, food waste management activities have resumed, and they expect to see significant improvement once 2022 and 2023 data are available.