Fresh fruit and vegetables (F&V) is a key sector in the Spanish agriculture. With an annual production of around 20 million tons, it has an economic value of 14 million Euros, contributing to 47% of the value of the Spanish plant production and 29% of the whole agricultural production (MAPA). However, inefficiencies within the F&V supply chains appear in the shape of food losses and waste (FLW). Based on the study of Garcia-Herrero et al. 2018, 8.100 tons of fruits and vegetables are wasted in Spain. Considering the whole F&V supply chain, the largest FLW rates (% of food loss or waste at a certain stage) take place at the consumption (19%), distribution (10%) and the postharvest handling and storage (9%).

While a large amount of research has analyzed the causes of food losses and waste at the consumer level, this article focuses on the food losses that occur at the distribution level. In this regard, Mena et al. (2014) identified two type of causes of F&V losses at the UK retailing: the causes related to the supply and demand management (i.e., the inadequate forecasting, uncertainty of consumption patterns with promotions and the overstocking) and the ones related to the product and process control (i.e, product specifications of retailer to meet consumers’ demand, product damages in processing, storing and transporting due to inappropriate cold chains and handling, and their short shelf-life).

Magalhaes et al. (2021) also researched the causes of FLW along the F&V supply chains. They classified the FLW causes in three categories: logistic, quality and retail. They concluded that the logistic causes (i.e., inadequate transportation systems, inadequate or defective packaging, lack of storage facilities, poor handling and operational performance and lack of coordination and information sharing) are the most influential ones, and, therefore, they highlighted the need to establish strategies to prevent food losses in this stage.

In this regard, the use of reusable plastic crates (RPCs) can play a crucial role. RPCs are designed to be used from grower to retailer, which prevents extra handling, and to provide the adequate ventilation and humidity conditions to extend the freshness of the food products. For instance, Europool highlights the strength of their RPCs in reducing food losses compared to single-use packaging, from 4% to 0.1%; and IFCO reported higher shelf life of fresh F&V transported in RPCs compared to single-use packaging.

Nevertheless, scientific literature on this issue is lacking. Most scientific articles on reusable transport packaging have focused on comparing the environmental burdens (in some cases, also the economic impacts) of reusable versus single-use (i.e, corrugated board and wood crates) packaging systems, without considering the impact on the life cycle of the food product. The inclusion of this aspect on the sustainability assessment of RPCs in the logistics of F&V is essential.

This will be in line with the sustainable development goals (SDGs), especially the SDG target 12.3 that aims to halve global FLW by 2030; as well as the farm to fork strategy of the European Green Deal, which has committed to this target. In addition, the European Commission is planning to propose legal binding targets by 2023 to reduce FLW, and regional developments in this respect are emerging. For instance, in March 2020, the Catalan government approved the law against food waste.  For large food companies, this law proposed to develop a food loss prevention plan, as well as to measure, reduce and communicate their amount of food losses.

What we do not quantify, we cannot manage. Hence, further developments of quantifying food losses is essential to improve the sustainable performance of food supply chains.

By Laura Batlle Bayer, researcher of the ARECO postdoctoral fellowship at the UNESCO Chair in Lifecycle and Climate Change at ESCI-UPF.