Exactly how much food do we waste? The numbers of official statistics are so high that they’re hard to grasp. In the EU only, it’s estimated that we waste 88 million tonnes of food every year, with a value of 143 billion euros. That’s about 10 million kilograms and 16 million euros every hour.
Emphasis here is on “estimated,” though. Right now, there’s no reliable way to calculate the amount of wasted food. Experts cannot even find a common definition for “food waste.”. Whatever the real numbers however, everyone agrees that it’s too much.
According to the same estimate, most of food waste – 47% – happens at home, but that’s just one part of the story: from seed to table, the food supply chain has many steps and food waste happens at each one of them.
The good news is, there are so many ways to tackle this gigantic issue that they could easily fill a book. However, that also means there’s no silver bullet: reducing food waste can only happen through a collective effort from consumers, public institutions, and businesses.
AgriFood tech start-ups are doing their part too, basically in two ways. One is to develop technologies for extending shelf life or real-time monitoring of food spoilage. The other is to help food operators sell products that would otherwise end up in the garbage bin. Which is what MyFoody does.
The Italian start-up, founded in 2015 by Luca Masseretti and Francesco Giberti, developed an app where consumers can find real time offers of nearly-expired food in nearby supermarkets. Food stores have been selling these products on separated shelves and fridges for some time now, and consumers are already used to buying them. For the most part however, those purchases happen as an afterthought: when we go to the store we don’t really know what products we’ll find in the “nearly-expired” section, so they’re not part of the grocery list. MyFoody’s mission is to change that and make shopping for those items more intentional.
The start-up is part of the 2017-2018 cohort of FoodTech Startupbootcamp in Rome. A few days before the Demo Day, co-founder Francesco Giberti talks about how the app works and what it means to be a start-up in Italy.
How receptive are supermarket chains to the need of reducing food waste?
They’ve been aware of it for many years, and they made great improvements, at least at warehouse management level. The stores are where they’re still struggling. While it’s easy for them to redirect food in excess from the warehouse (by donating it to charities for example), and they’ve been doing it for many years, that’s still not possible from the store.
That’s where we come in: we offer an alternative channel to redistribute those products. Our software is connected to the supermarket’s cash register system and gets updated in real time: as soon as a discounted product is scanned and purchased, it’s removed from the list.
What types of products do supermarkets offer most often?
40% of our offers are in the meat, seafood and eggs category. Cured meats and dairy rank second, with 35%. Together, they make up 75% of food on offer, and they also happen to be the most expensive products when they’re sold at full price. The rest are ready meals, fruits and vegetables.
Most of our users are between 25 and 34 years old and are interested in a sustainable lifestyle. Until now, we’ve mainly used Facebook to collect information, of course anonymously. This year, we’re planning to get to know better what type of food our users normally buy, so we can help them find the most relevant products.
Was it difficult to start working with the big chains in food distribution?
It’s first of all a matter of credibility. The large-scale food distribution sector in Italy is complex and has a traditional mentality. They’re used to working with large established companies, so for a start-up like us it wasn’t easy to prove that, as a business, we’re here to stay and that our service is reliable.
During our first two years, the most difficult part has been to find the first movers, those that are willing to move from “Excellent idea, I love it!” to “Yes, let’s do this!” It’s like a chess game: everyone waits for someone else to make the first move. Finally, we closed two deals with two large distributors, Unes and Unicoop Tirreno. That should make things easier, because now we can show results, case studies and real data.
What about consumers? Are they starting to see it as problem too?
That improved a lot also. A major push came from Expo 2015 in Milan, which brought the issue under the spotlight and started a virtuous circle in the media and the public. Now people want to know more about it, and it’s easier for them to find information on how to reduce food waste. Our mission is to work on both fronts: helping people save money by giving them access to discounted food and increasing awareness.
How did the recent food waste law in Italy help fight food waste?
Indirectly, I think it’s helping a lot. The purpose of the law is to incentivise everyone – consumers, supermarket chains, non-profit organisations, municipalities or start-ups – to take action against food waste.
It’s not a prescriptive law. For example, it leaves a lot of discretion to municipalities regarding their food waste policy and if and how to grant tax reliefs.
It’s still too early to evaluate the impact, though. It’s a long process, and the law is still too recent. All in all however, it was a trend which was important to start, and what the law did was send out the message to everyone that public institutions are aware of the problem. This is a good time to be working on this type of issue.
Food expiration dates are widely considered as one of the main causes of food waste. What’s your take on that?
I don’t think the main problem is how expiration dates are regulated. Right now, the main difference is between “best before” and “use by”. “Best before” means the food is still safe to eat after the date, but it may not be as tasty and fresh as it should be. “Use by” means it may not be safe to consume.
The difference is quite clear, I think. It’s mainly a cultural and an awareness problem. People think they are the same thing, which is why supermarkets are having a hard time selling products that passed the “best before” date. In MyFoody, we have many products that are sold at 50% discount as they’re approaching the “best before” date. We receive a lot of emails from consumers asking us if those are still safe to eat.
First of all, we should work on making consumers more aware, and we’re doing a lot of work to solve that misunderstanding. After that, we can reasonably ask supermarkets to find better ways to sell those products. Smaller independent stores are starting to sell them, but it’s rare. In the rest of Europe, Norway for example, it’s more common.
Are you planning to offer your service to other parts of the supply chain, for example restaurants or farmers?
Our app is perfectly suitable to urban environments, so restaurants are definitely our next target. In fact, we’ve already started to work in that direction. After all, our purpose is to match demand with supply.
Farmers on the other hand, are more difficult to reach so they’re not part of our business plan at the moment, at least not for the app. For them, the challenge is to sell produce that doesn’t have a perfect shape or colour. For consumers, ugly means bad, so they don’t what them. There are still things we can do to help, though. We could work with supermarkets to start an “ugly but good” product line like Intermarché successfully did in France.
You’re now part of Startupbootcamp in Rome. Is it your first time in an accelerator?
It’s our second time, and it came at a moment when we have matured, we’re on the market and ready to scale up. The program has an excellent structure and is proving quite useful, especially to get to meet investors and mentors.
What’s it like to be a start-up in Italy?
If you have a real product, it’s particularly difficult, because it’s more complex, riskier and requires more funds. In Italy there are very few investors ready to bet on ambitious industrial projects. The very few funds with some investment capabilities changed their strategy over the years, moving from early stage seed investments to a later stage.
Over here, the typical backer is ready to invest in start-ups when they have a significant turnover and have already proved they’re competitive on the market. Abroad, in the UK, USA or France for example, it’s easier to find investors ready to help you get there. So it’s harder in Italy, but in a way it’s also positive, because it forces you to work harder at the start.
Also, the start-up movement in Italy is quite disjointed. That’s bad, because as a start-up you’re small by nature, and when you’re on your own you’re missing out on opportunities to become competitive.
Finally, another problem is the lack of internationalization: with few notable exceptions, a start-up that’s born in Italy, stays in Italy. That’s because there’s little or no collaboration between Italian and foreign funds. Being a smaller country is not a limit nor an excuse. Portugal, for example, has thriving start-up movement.
Overall, it’s not all bad, but I think there’s a great potential that is not being fully developed.
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