Why Do Israelis Throw Away Half the Food They Buy?

While one billion people worldwide are suffering from hunger, up to half of the food produced − in rich and poor countries alike − is thrown out before it reaches anyone’s plate.

Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv
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Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv

A nighttime walk along Tel Aviv’s Marmorek Street presents a fascinating picture. There are three homeless people under the covered passage next to the bank. They are asleep, despite the din just a few meters away, as workers from a supermarket two stores down throw out merchandise. At the bottom of the pile of garbage are cartons packed with vegetables. Above are whole chickens tightly wrapped in plastic, dairy products and packets of hummus and tahini. The workers load the goods onto a cart, which they push to a nearby garbage bin.

Such scenes can be witnessed all over the world. Hungry people and discarded food are separated by a small physical space but a wide conceptual abyss. On one side of this chasm is a waste-driven consumer culture; on the other, harrowing poverty − a human wasteland. The divide is everywhere: between people on the same street, between different groups in the same country, between countries. Even as one billion people in the world suffer from hunger, an estimated 30 to 50 percent of all food produced is thrown out before it reaches anyone’s plate.

Food is discarded all along the links of the human supply chain − from farmers to food manufacturers, supermarkets to restaurants and catering services, right down to the individual consumer.

According to a report published last month by the British-based Institution of Mechanical Engineers ‏(IMechE‏), four billion metric tons of food is produced in the world every year, and up to two billion tons of it is thrown out before it gets into anyone’s stomach.

This huge waste is compounded by the loss of resources − land, energy, water − that were uselessly invested in growing and producing this food.

The report asserts that the waste is global in scale, but has different causes in different regions. In countries that are in developmental stages, such as in Africa, most of the waste is due to inefficient harvesting, transportation and storage facilities. Produce is mishandled and it spoils.

In developed countries, the bulk of the waste is due to the fact that many retail chains refuse to accept food that does not meet uniform standards of size, color and texture.

Thus, 30 percent of the vegetables grown in Britain are not harvested because they do not conform to the supermarkets’ standards, the report states. Globally, 1.6 million tons of food are discarded every year for this reason.

A large amount of food is also wasted by the consumer: Between 30 and 50 percent of the food purchased in developed countries is never eaten. “The amount of food wasted or lost around the world is shocking,” says Tim Fox, the head of the energy and environment union of the IMechE ‏(which has more than 100,000 members worldwide‏), in a telephone interview.

“We want to encourage people to consider the value of food more,” he says. “The situation can be improved by changes in political, commercial and domestic practices. We want to encourage everybody – from prime ministers and business leaders through to people preparing their dinners at home – to think about the amount of food that is wasted. By improving processes and infrastructure in developing countries, as well as changing consumer mind-sets in mature economies, we could have the potential to provide as much as 60-100 percent more food to feed the world’s growing population.”

The report’s findings are strikingly similar to those of a study conducted in 2010-11 by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. The FAO found that in developing countries, 40 percent of the garbage is generated during the harvesting and processing of food components, while in developed countries 40 percent of the food is thrown out by retailers and consumers.

Locally, these data are confirmed by Dr. Amnon Lichter, head of the Postharvest and Food Sciences unit of the Agriculture Ministry’s Volcani Institute in Beit Dagan. “The finding that 50 percent of the food is thrown out recurs in almost every study that has been conducted on the subject since the 1980s,” he notes. “In other words, we can say both that this is a correct picture and that we are not seeing any improvement.”

Food insecurity

At a quarter to five every Friday afternoon, a few volunteers from Leket Israel – an umbrella organization in Israel for salvaging food and distributing it to the needy – gather at the food market in Tel Aviv’s fancy Dizengoff Center. They arrive with an industrial metal cart that holds about 100 empty boxes. After exchanging warm greetings with the staff of the food stands, Pini and Racheli Feffer, Dania Leter and Domignon Ekpechi proceed to collect a large amount of leftover food from the stands. Within an hour, all the boxes are filled with high-quality food, which was being sold for NIS 30 per portion during the day.

The boxes are piled onto the cart and then transferred to the organization’s small van, to be unloaded in the heart of Levinsky Park, near the Central Bus Station area populated by foreign labor migrants and hardscrabble Israelis.

The boxes are placed on a table set up by African and Filipino volunteers from the Redeemed Christian Church of God in south Tel Aviv. A long line of people forms. Many of those in line are from countries in Africa, but not all: Israelis from the neighborhood also turn up regularly to stock up on food for the weekend.

The Feffers are longtime Leket Israel volunteers. They say that the food market in the mall also operates on Thursdays; at the end of the day, volunteers arrive to collect the surplus and take it to a soup kitchen in south Tel Aviv. The unsold food on Thursday feeds 600 people; Friday’s is enough for 700 people. The stand operators report that about 10 percent of the food remains unsold at the end of each day.

“I used to prepare less, so as not to throw anything out, but I was told that my stand didn’t look good, that I should prepare more so it would look full,” a woman from one of the stands says, explaining the reason for the large surplus of food. The operators are happy to donate the extra food to Leket.

“Everyone gains from that,” one of them explains. “We feel we are contributing something: Leket feeds people. The management of the mall replaced large garbage bins with small ones since Leket started to collect the leftovers here.”

“Say ‘surplus,’ not ‘leftovers,’” Pini interjects. “Leftovers means food that’s left on the plate, but surplus is tasty food that’s fit to eat,” he explains.

In 2012, Leket Israel collected 9,360 tons of surplus food from farms, hot meals and processed items. Some 793,000 hot meals were distributed through the organization, all from food that would otherwise have been thrown away.

“Israel has a serious problem of food security, which is the most severe form of poverty, and the state is doing nothing about it,” says Eran Weintraub, executive director of the humanitarian organization Latet. It too operates as an umbrella organization, for 150 local groups in 95 locales throughout Israel. According to figures for 2011 provided by the National Insurance Institute, 18.7 percent of households in Israel − including 764,000 children − suffer from food insecurity, and 10.5 percent suffer from marked food insecurity.

Weintraub notes that food worth more than NIS 1 billion is destroyed in Israel every year.

To illustrate his point, he cites the standard agreement that is signed between a food manufacturer and retail chains. The food companies undertake to supply products with at least a two-month expiry date and in proper packaging. Any product that does not meet these standards is removed from the shelves. Products with a sell-by date of less than two months, or with flawed packaging, are passed on to Latet, which distributes them to the needy. “But in health terms, that food is 100 percent fine,” Weintraub emphasizes.

In 2012, Latet collected the largest amount of food since it was founded in 1996, worth some NIS 40 million. “It sounds impressive, but it’s nothing compared to the potential,” Weintraub says. “We estimate that food worth NIS 300 to 400 million could be collected. In other words, we are only reaching 10 percent of the total. There is still so much to do.”

What prevents you from collecting more?

“There are state-imposed regulatory restrictions. For example, it’s forbidden to donate meat or dairy products. We suggested that the government introduce a national food-security project, in which all the organizations involved would be brought under one central authority. The idea received a positive response – at least in theory – and many promises were made. But beyond the voluntary activity of the nonprofit associations in Israel, nothing is happening.

“If the state were to help out, we could salvage 10 times or more the amount we are now collecting. According to our calculations, with an investment of NIS 30 million in infrastructure, trucks and storage depots, and with proper regulation, food worth NIS 300 million could be rescued. This is an activity without any drawbacks: It’s good for the environment and good for people, and doesn’t require a large investment. So it’s not clear why the state is not doing more in this regard.”

An interesting point emerges in a study conducted by the Milken Institute Fellows Program, about the connection between throwing out food and making food available for the needy in Israel. The study notes that in 2006, hot meals were provided for 104,000 school pupils by one of 45 contractors operating in the field. The cost of the food project that year was NIS 127 million, of which only NIS 32 million − or just over a quarter − was paid by the state.

Statistically, then, the state underwrote the feeding of only 26,000 schoolchildren. According to the study, a change of policy would make it possible to provide meals for 482,000 schoolchildren, or 18.5 times the number subsidized by the state.

“If the meals project were extended to all the primary schools and kindergartens in the country, 1,150,000 children would receive a hot meal, and 500 food contractors would get work,” the study concluded.

Less is enough

Food that is thrown out in Israel and does not reach the humanitarian organizations arrives at one of the country’s garbage dumps. The Hiriya site southeast of Tel Aviv is a transit station for waste, and receives garbage from 30 local authorities in the metropolitan area. From there it is compressed into large trucks and transported to one of the country’s landfill sites, such as Ganei Hadas, ‏or Duda’im, in the Negev. Of the 3,200 tons of garbage arriving at Hiriya daily, only about 25 tons is organic waste that has already been separated in homes or businesses.

In addition to those 25 tons, the waste at Hiriya is a mixed bag − plastic and electronics, glass, food and more. The severe stench at the site attests to the presence of foodstuffs.

During a tour of the site, Yiftach Inbar, an engineering assistant at the Dan Municipal Sanitation Association, tells me that the smell is caused by the fermenting of organic material. Explaining one of the environmental aspects of throwing out food, he says, “Organic waste buried in the ground releases methane gas, which contributes to the greenhouse effect 20 times more than carbon dioxide.”

According to Ilan Gilboa, a DMSA sanitation engineer, the large amount of food in Israeli garbage reflects the economic situation. “The richer we are, the more we throw out,” he says. “There are also differences in the behavior of different socioeconomic regions. In Savyon, for example, people throw out more than they do in Rahat.” ‏(The former is an affluent community near Tel Aviv, the latter a Bedouin town in the Negev.‏)

“A poor family will eat a whole watermelon and roast the seeds, too; a rich family will eat a few slices and discard the rest,” he adds. “A poor family will make toast from yesterday’s bread; a rich family will throw out what’s left of the day’s bread that same evening.” Gilboa also notes that food almost always comes in plastic, paper or aluminum packaging, which creates even more waste.

The Milken Institute study produced another interesting finding. In 2006, no fewer than 32,802 tons of surplus farm products – including fruits, vegetables and eggs – were destroyed. “Every year a planned number of farm products are destroyed and other crops are left in the field,” says Guy Yehoshua, who is in charge of the Leket project for collecting produce from farmers. “Destruction of crops takes place when there is a surplus in the storage depots and the prices are about to drop. Crops are left in the field to rot when the produce is not pleasing to the eye and the price the farmer will get for it will not cover the harvesting costs.”

Last summer, for example, 20,000 tons of potatoes were destroyed in Israel because their market value was low. Leket Israel was only able to salvage about 40 tons of potatoes. One vegetable recently enjoyed by the needy was kohlrabi, because the cold weather caused small brown dots to appear on some of the plants. They were perfectly edible but not fit to be marketed, so they ended up in Leket Israel and from there became, for a time, a staple of many poor families.

Some of the Arava desert’s famous peppers also reached the organization in 2012. “Every week during the pepper harvest, Arava farmers brought us two to four truckloads of grade-A peppers,” says Yehoshua. “They were disqualified for retail because they didn’t meet the individual weight criterion of 250 grams. But they were very tasty.”

In the case of apples from the Golan Heights, for the fifth year running Leket volunteers arrived in the orchards at the end of the harvest season to pick 3,000 tons of fruit remaining on the trees. All told, Leket Israel picks about 9,000 tons of agricultural produce each year for distribution to the needy.

Some farmers, though, have almost no surplus produce. Bat Ami Sorek and Alon Efrati are the comanagers of Chubeza, an organic farm in the Ayalon Valley, west of Jerusalem. The key to their efficiency lies in their marketing method: directly to the home of the consumer.

A box of vegetables, its content chosen by the farmers, is delivered to each of their clients once a week. Clients can order a small box of 11 different vegetables‏ or a large one ‏of 14, and they can ask to have this or that vegetable removed or added to the box. But overall, the content is decided by Sorek and Efrati, who say that, in this way, almost nothing gets thrown out.

“Every Sunday and Tuesday we go through the field and decide what will go into the package that week,” Sorek says ‏(deliveries are made Monday and Wednesday, depending on location‏). “Many considerations enter into it, including consumer considerations, such as what was sent the week before and two weeks earlier, so that people will not receive the same vegetables all the time. But there are also other criteria, such as what needs to be picked before it will be too late and will have to be thrown away.”

Another way they reduce waste is by picking 10 fewer units than required. On each delivery day, 250 boxes go out, but only 240 units of vegetables will be picked, because people sometimes call and ask for a box without a particular item. “We prefer to pick less and add at the end of the day, if necessary, rather than be left with 10 extra bundles,” Sorek says.

Sell-by sensitivity

Food-processing firms represent a convenient solution for fruits and vegetables that are not aesthetically suitable for marketing as fresh produce. For example, misshapen strawberries, which will turn off supermarket customers, may well be suitable for a jam manufacturer. Manufacturers take an active part in salvaging food and passing it on to the needy.

Every day for the past seven years, Leket Israel has distributed 7,600 sandwiches to 112 schools in 32 Israeli cities and towns. Surplus rolls are donated by bakeries, and food manufacturers provide spreads with an imminent expiry date ‏(but which are still fresh‏) or have a packaging flaw.

Uri Nathan, assistant to the CEO in the veteran Israeli food company Osem, explains the process by which food is rescued. “There are three criteria that disqualify edible quality products for marketing: a close sell-by date; flawed packaging; or incorrect graphic design on the package. Osem does not throw these items out, but donates them to various organizations for the needy, mainly to Latet.” Nathan notes that saving food is built into the company’s logistical system.

The Volcani Institute’s Dr. Lichter notes that the sell-by date on processed foods is one of the major reasons food is thrown away. “Very often the expiry date is just ass-covering and no more,” he says.

Work is now underway to develop biosensors to monitor produce. Instead of determining a specific expiry date, a label will be pasted on the item whose color will change when the product is no longer edible. “For example, a biosensor for the gas ethylene: as soon as the fruit starts giving off the gas, the sensor attached to the fruit will change color and we will know it has reached its maximum ripeness. The thinking is that this can prevent much food wastage.”

Pinhas Gurevich, the CEO of Sanlakol ‏(which owns Yachin, a company that produces processed fruits and vegetables‏), describes another method of saving food in connection with the sell-by date. “We manufacture a quantity that matches demand and thereby eliminate surpluses. Because the shelf life of our products ranges from eight months to three years, the amount we throw away is negligible. The large-scale waste has to do with products with a short shelf life, where large percentages of the total production get thrown out.”

From conversations with personnel in the food-processing industry, it appears that most manufacturers are making efforts to throw away as little as possible, largely for economic reasons. Moreover, this goal is achievable by means of simple adjustments to machinery or revised work procedures. Most of the waste occurs in the next link of the supply chain: the supermarkets.

While researching his 2009 book “Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal” ‏(Penguin paperback‏), British historian Tristram Stuart found that the supermarket chains in the United States carry twice the amount of food needed to feed the country’s entire population. According to another study, conducted in the United States by the University of Arizona, supermarkets and restaurants in the U.S. generated some 27 million tons of garbage in 2010, accounting for 90 percent of the food waste that reaches landfills.

The situation in Israel is presumably similar, though statistical data are impossible to come by. “The supermarket chains do not release those statistics, because their loss is rolled back onto the consumer, who also pays for what he did not purchase,” says Leket Israel's Guy Yehoshua. “The supermarket chains don’t want us to know how much food is destroyed, because we pay for the tomato they threw out, too, not only for the one we bought,” adds Dr. Lichter.

And, according to Latet’s Weintraub, “The supermarket chains destroy a large amount of food. The reason is that no regulatory arrangements exist for this issue. The regulator is amiss twice: the first time by not addressing the dumping of food, and the second by not allowing a solution in the form of organized donations by the supermarket chains to the needy.”

The supermarket chain Super-Sol stated in response: “We are working to reduce the scale of the depreciation of products, both fresh and packaged, in order to save on expenses and avoid an unnecessary waste of food. We will not enter into numbers about throwing away food, but in general our depreciation data, as of now, are similar to those of the leading supermarket chains worldwide – this after we made significant progress on this subject in the past year. The data show that the level of depreciation in the area of fruits and vegetables is relatively high in Israel, owing to the hot climate.”

The Tiv Ta’am chain offered estimates in general terms about losses in the supermarket chains. Yossi Shalev, in charge of marketing for Tiv Taam, says: “The depreciation in the vegetables department of a retail chain, which also includes all the products that do not go through the cash register ‏(that is, including loss from theft and other reasons‏), ranges from 5 to 10 percent. In the frozen meat department it is 2-3 percent and in fresh meat 5 percent, because the chain buys whole animals and takes them apart, thus leaving parts that are not bought. In dry goods the depreciation amounts to 2 percent.”

Shalev says there is little to be done about saving the meat, fruits and vegetables that are thrown away. “However, with dry goods and refrigerated items ‏(milk and spreads‏), smarter management will reduce the waste.”

An employee at one of the large chains took me on a secret visit to what he called “behind” the supermarket. The scene there was a mirror image of the store that customers see: carton upon carton of dry goods, fruits and vegetables and refrigerators packed with dairy and meat products and spreads − only without the exemplary order in evidence out front.

One part of the storage area contains products that will be sold during the week, while the other part is earmarked for products that are being returned to the manufacturers. The manufacturers’ sales personnel work hard to try to persuade the supermarket chains that their product is about to be “snatched” from the shelves. However, this is often not the case, which is one reason for the high percentage of returns.

“A large amount of food is lost because of the sell-by date,” my guide says. “Sometimes, for example, you miscalculate the amount of cheese for that week, and then the expiry date approaches and it’s all thrown out. Another source says some food is thrown out by the supermarkets because it gets spoiled if the refrigerators are turned off for Shabbat, as happens in some cases.

According to Dr. Lichter, “Storage is the golden route for the supermarket chains. If they stored the food more efficiently, shelf life could be extended and losses cut. I believe commercial reasons caused by the fierce competition between the chains are not allowing them to give enough thought to ways of improving storage.

“In the Volcani Institute,” he continues, “we have developed methods to prolong the shelf life of tomatoes by an extra week – but that technology costs more money than the supermarkets are spending today, so they are not interested in using it.”

Dr. Lichter adds that retailers also make mistakes due to lack of knowledge. “An example is the refrigerated storage of fruits and vegetables before they reach the shelf. When the store opens they are placed on a nonrefrigerated shelf and then put back into refrigeration for the night. Every such return to refrigeration lowers the quality of the produce, and as a result it gets thrown away quickly.”

The supermarkets also need to educate the public, Lichter says. “Consumers have to be taught that an ugly tomato is tasty and of high quality, even if its color is not perfect. Nowadays, a tomato like that goes into the garbage even before it gets to the shelf.”

Supermarkets, he adds, could charge less for “ugly” fruits and vegetables than for “perfectly formed” ones.

Garbage time

At the end of 2010, the BBC broadcast a television program in which four leading chefs were asked to cook a sumptuous meal for 60 people using only items that had been thrown into the garbage. The program monitored the chef’s meetings with the various disposers of food − farmers, supermarkets and consumers − and the results were eye-opening.

The program was very popular in Britain and placed the subject of food waste on the public agenda. No such program has been broadcast in Israel, where the level of awareness of the subject is, in any case, relatively low.

According to the chef and culinary adviser Doron Baron, this lack of awareness is discernible in the work of many cooks. “Sometimes I come across cooks who throw away the end of the celery, instead of using it for soup stock, or who throw away a whole parsley because it’s a bit pale. The subject needs to be addressed in culinary schools.”

Baron is also scathing about Israeli consumers, who heap food on their plate and thus throw away more. “It’s very much accepted to leave food on the plate in Israel, and that causes major food wastage.”

Food quantities can be regulated at the purchase stage, he explains. For example, he works according to a calculation of 150 grams of green leaves for each diner, or one beet for every four people. “Meat is also bought according to weight per person, in order to avoid waste, but also not to lose on it.”

There’s a certain tomato that has a standard size, Baron notes, and each such tomato can be cut into 12 uniform slices.

“They cost more,” he says, “but it pays, because it allows me to order the cooks to cut them into 12 slices and to know exactly what I am getting. These days there is talk in the food industry of ‘on-the-mark products,’ which are precisely suited to a cook’s needs.”

But despite his own high awareness, Baron says that in the restaurant and catering business, there is no choice but to prepare more than will be required, in order to avoid a situation of shortage in the middle of a serving. “The usual criterion is to prepare 10 percent more than is needed, so as to be prepared for any situation,” he says.

The global picture

Four billion tons of food are produced worldwide per year. About half this amount, two billion tons, is thrown out because of inefficiencies in agriculture, storage, transport and consumption.

To this must be added all the land that goes to waste. In the past five decades, agricultural lands have increased by 12 percent. Ten thousand meters of land can produce rice or potatoes for 22 people per year, but meat for only two.

Water is also wasted whenever food is thrown away. In the last century, the use of water increased at more than twice the rate of the increase in population. Humanity consumes 3.8 trillion cubic meters of water per year, 70 percent of it in agriculture. The use of water in farming is expected to grow in the coming decades to 10-13 trillion cubic meters per year, according to most estimates. Raising cattle requires 50 times more water than raising vegetables.

Much energy is wasted in food production, which accounts for 3.1 percent of world energy consumption. On average, 7-10 calories are required to manufacture a single calorie of food. The equation varies with the product: Three calories of energy for each calorie of vegetable and 35 calories of energy for each calorie of meat.

Fifty percent of the energy invested in growing wheat is designated for the manufacture of chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides. On the global scale, fertilizer manufacturing requires 3-5 percent of the world’s natural gas supply, an amount that is expected to rise to 25 percent by 2030.

More food is wasted in developed countries than in developing countries. In developed countries, 40 percent of food waste occurs at the marketing and consumer levels, while in developing countries, 40 percent of the waste occurs during planting and harvesting.

Amount of milk thrown away annually: 40-65 percent of dairy products are thrown away at the consumer level, 3-4 percent in the dairy.

Grains: 40-50 percent is thrown away at the consumer level worldwide.

Legumes: 6-12 percent is thrown away during the harvest.

Fruits and vegetables: 15-30 percent is thrown away by consumers.

Meat: 50 percent is thrown away by consumers.

Fish and seafood: 9-15 percent is thrown away during fishing, and another 30 percent by consumers.

Rotten apple.Credit: Ilya Melnikov
How much we discard.Credit: Haaretz
A worker sorts through the garbage at Hiriya, near Tel Aviv.Credit: Nir Kafri



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