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Japan throws out 620,000 tons of food a year, while 3 mil kids don't have enough to eat

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It’s a shocking anomaly. Japan trashes 6.21 million tons of perfectly edible food each year while, also in Japan, an estimated 3 million children don’t have enough to eat.

 Josei Seven (March 22) takes up the issue of “food loss.” It could almost be called food sabotage. It’s an old problem, and one wonders how it can have been permitted to persist so long. The answer seems to be that flaws are engrained so deeply into the system as to appear unchallengeable. The magazine is pleased to note that at least that seems to be changing. Slowly, measures are taking shape to put matters right.

The 6.21 million ton figure is the agricultural ministry’s for the year 2017. It works out, Josei Seven says, to the amount of food the 13 million residents of Tokyo consume in a year; or, alternatively, to twice the annual amount of food aid the developed world extends to developing nations. More than half the waste – 3.39 million tons – is discarded by the food industry: producers, supermarkets and restaurants. Households account for the remainder.

Japanese consumers are often described as “finicky,” insisting on perfect appearance of produce and iron-clad guarantees of freshness and safety. The law backs them up and reinforces this attitude. The history goes back to the immediate postwar period, when sanitation was wretched and disease widespread. The Food Sanitation Law designed to combat that was as strict as experts at the time felt it had to be, and no one ever since has thought of relaxing it. One result is a use-by or sell-by date system that is more rigorous – and taken more seriously by consumers – than equivalents in most other countries. 

Journalist Rumi Ide, who has written extensively on the issue, tells the magazine of the “one-third rule” – a rule of thumb rather than a law, but an industry standard. The time between production and consumption is divided into thirds. First third: delivery. Second third: sale to consumer. Third third: disposal.

Consider a snack item with a shelf life of six months. During the first two months it would go from producer to wholesalers, leaving two months for shipment to retailers, who have two months to get it to you and me. It unnecessarily rushes the process. Snacks don’t go bad so fast. The U.S. system allows twice as much time, the UK’s 1.25 times as much.

Another industry convention Ide cites is a penalty system for short deliveries. If a wholesaler or retailer orders 100 items and the producer only delivers 80, the seller will demand compensation for the profits that would have accrued from the 100, had they been on hand. This puts pressure on producers to over-produce, to say nothing of the incentive it gives sellers to over-order. The overall result is more production than can be consumed. This fills trash cans.

Recycling of food waste is one possible solution, but facilities are few. What there is of recycling ends up feeding pigs for the most part. But 80 percent of food waste is incinerated, not recycled, and Koichi Takahashi, director of the recycle facility Japan Food Ecology Center in Kanagawa Prefecture, wonders how taxpayers would feel if they knew that 2 trillion yen per year goes to feed the incinerators that consume perfectly edible food.

The failure in Japan of the humble doggy bag to take root is another problem. Americans and Europeans unable to finish a restaurant meal take the remainder home with them. Japanese don’t – at least haven’t. That’s changing. Attractive packaging helps, and restaurants are slowly catching on.

The estimate of 3 million hungry children is based on health ministry statistics for 2015, which show 13.9 percent of Japanese kids living below the poverty line. If more unsold, uneaten but edible and healthy food went to food banks instead of the incinerator via the trash can, poverty would cease to mean malnutrition. Second Harvest Japan, incorporated as an NPO in 2002, is Japan’s first food bank. In 2016, Josei Seven says, it turned some 2000 tons of prematurely trashed food into 4.7 million meals.

© Japan Today

©2018 GPlusMedia Inc.

15 Comments
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Almost criminal to waste a valuable and essential resource that would be better used to help feed the hungry and needed with food donations centers or given to food and soup kitchens or NGO's like Second Harvest in Tokyo.

My wife would throw out food just because it have reached the printed date on the package. Now I make her ask me first and at 90% does not need throwing out.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

"Kaiten" sushi places are some of the worst offenders. Plates and plates of food going around which nobody eats because everyone orders fresh from their table or counter.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Is it 620,000 or 6.2 millions ?

Having been working in restaurants for years here, I can attest of the enormous waste of food everyday.

The first cause being the consumer, with habits of ordering too much, being too picky etc...

The second cause being the companies who won't let clients or employees bring back home some of the unused food.

8 ( +8 / -0 )

@kawabegawa198

And that's just a small part. I worked for 2 years in a kaitenzushi company, I can tell you there is much more waste than that !

4 ( +4 / -0 )

The retail portion of waste is just the tip of the iceberg. When a 20 ton shipment of bananas, for example, is found to be partially spoiled, the whole 20 tons gets destroyed. The reason is that it would cost too much to sort the good from the bad, and the company would face an greater loss that they would by dumping the whole load.

And don't forget agriculture policies in years where there are bumper crops. Tons of perfectly good fresh produce will be destroyed to reduce supply and lift prices to where the farmers can turn a profit.

These are not easy problems to solve, but surely more effort could be put to that end than there is currently.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

That food could be distributed to the homeless & elderly - we here in N.Y. have City Harvest, Gods love we deliver, Meals on Wheels & the majority are run by volunteers . I don't see why similar programs couldn't be started throughout Japan-

6 ( +6 / -0 )

Ok in Japan 6.2 millions tons of food is wasted. In the US? Let us see:

Americans waste an unfathomable amount of food. In fact, according to a Guardian report released this week, roughly 50 percent of all produce in the United States is thrown away—some 60 million tons (or $160 billion) worth of produce annually, an amount constituting “one third of all foodstuffs.” Wasted food is also the single biggest occupant in American landfills, the Environmental Protection Agency has found.

60 Million tons vs 6.2 million??? WTF USA?

2 ( +6 / -4 )

Between 30 and 50 percent of all the food produced in the world is lost and wasted, which shocking when 4 billion people don't have enough food to eat. 50% of 4.4 billion tons of food that is produced worldwide annually is never eaten.

Estimates of the amount of waste in Japan range from 17 million to 23 million tons a year; the low end of that forecast is equivalent to 30 percent of the country’s domestic production, a stunning number in light of the oft-cited goal of obtaining “food security.” 

Worth almost ¥11 trillion and is the monetary equivalent of Japan’s annual agricultural output. Experts reckon it costs another ¥2 trillion to dispose of that waste.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

Very good article. This really is an issue in need of attention. 16% of kids in Japan currently live in poverty - there needs to be a mechanism in place to get this food to them. Also, I find people here (family) a bit obsessive about "best by" dates on processed/packaged foods. I've heard that companies are allowed to determine these dates for themselves. Likewise, are companies able to write off unsold food on their taxes? If so, you have a huge incentive to destroy edible food. Anyone know?

5 ( +5 / -0 )

People are obsessed with sell by dates here, also unless fruit and veg looks perfect no one will buy them. I do, save a fortune.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

That statistic (6.2mill tons) is lower than other sources.

Zichi's comment of 17 ~ 23 mill seems closer to the mark.

Short on heavy detail but interesting -

https://www.gdrc.org/sustdev/food/japan-waste.html

3 ( +3 / -0 )

50% of 4.4 billion tons of food that is produced worldwide annually is never eaten.

Idem for all equipment. Everything is wasted massively. I come from a food related job with nearly 0% waste (being my own boss, I did what it take, it is not a burden when it's thought beforehand). I now work in an industry making goods that never rot... and I have piles of wasted stuff in the office ...most of that I could possibly sell but our commercial policy is against it. There is no concern about wasting at all, no recycling either. Now they under-produce. You'd think it's better than over-producing, but nope, that causes shortages and goods being transported multiple times with the most polluting vehicles. And they do only to reduce cost of storage.

Our whole way of producing/selling/consuming is flawed.

Americans and Europeans unable to finish a restaurant meal take the remainder home with them. 

Doggy bag is not very common in Europe. In the US, most people bring the bag home, store it days in a huge fridge and then put to the bin. That's a waste of packaging. The only solution is better management of served quantity. Restaurants should serve less and allow refills, or allow you to decide amount you need. Some already do. I'd say, maybe my level in Japanese improved, or the attitude changed, but things got better in Japan. When I first visited, I had to take the only offer, a whole teishoku. That's often too much for me and if I tried to say 'charge me the teishoku but bring mine without the rice, with half of the noodles, without the second side dish...', the answer was "We can't do that, if you don't eat, let it. ". And now, they accept to serve me only 2 grains of rice if I ask... The offer for smaller size of rice bowl, or other servings is also more common. Well that's probably a drop in the sea of wasting society...

The estimate of 3 million hungry children is based on health ministry statistics for 2015,

Which is an unrelated problem. First, that seems extremely excessive. Children in public schools are all fed (even if often teachers and PTA volunteers use their own money as social services don't do their job). That would be infants. Japan having a maxi of 5 million of kids under 5, 3 out of 5 would be starving ? If that was true that would be a total national shame. I know they don't do enough for families and poor people, but that dramatization is counterproductive.

13.9 percent of Japanese kids living below the poverty line. 

That does not mean 'underfed' or not. Poverty line is defined as 'less than half as the diposable income of the median household'. Roughly, it's less than 100 000 yen per month (for a 1 adult household). Then again, that's not happening because your mother-in-law thows away bananas before you consider them ripe. That's because societies let the gap between rich and poor go wider.

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

Guess we'll start seeing Government sponsored Food Banks here in Japan...

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

This is not an easy problem to solve, and yet most Japanese I know acknowledge it is a problem and admit something needs to be done. The bottom line is, though, that until the people, and possibly the laws/enforcement, change to ACTION instead of just words, it's like a prayer at a shrine and a wish that things will change themselves, and just wishful thinking.

Again, most people I know admit and acknowledge the problem, but those same people wouldn't buy food passed a "best before" date if they knew stores were stocking it past them given the option, so the stores won't do it, and they won't buy fruit or vegetables that aren't near perfect on the shelves (they will at a farmer's market, though). The best we can hope for at the moment is that convenience stores and supermarkets will send food that passes said dates to shelters or places where people who need it can get it. I have no doubt there would be a huge number of willing volunteers to help.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

"When a 20 ton shipment of bananas, for example, is found to be partially spoiled, the whole 20 tons gets destroyed."

commanteer Thank you for your information.

Not only is this a shocking example of stupidity at its greatest. It is equally shocking when one thinks about the labour that goes into picking 20 tons of bananas (I should say, share slavery) Banana pickers are paid very little for their very very hard work. Dragging 20 kgs + of bananas on a hot 40 degree + day is no easy job, paid next to nothing for your hard days work. Only to have the bananas destroyed. Crazy world sometimes.

Public awareness needs to jump up a notch or two. I didn't even think such a problem existed in Japan, to such a degree anyway. 620 thousand tons is so much waste and that is only what we are being told. Because we are never told the full story, are we?

I have added this story to my website and by doing so hope to increase public awareness. Eventually when enough people say "enough" to corporate giants they will have to listen (or am I only dreaming?)

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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