Cutting food waste throughout the value chain? This is how Lamb Weston does it Wednesday 03 March 2021

Every year, around 800 million kilogrammes of processed potato products are produced by the six European plants of the Dutch-American company Lamb Weston (LW). Since 2008 the potato processor has been very active to reduce its food loss and waste. In 2020, the company committed, together with its supply chain partners in the UK, to reducing food waste by 50 percent by 2030 from potato to plate. Making it the first British food business delivering a ‘whole chain’ plan with its partners. So, how does that work in practice?

Andrew McDonagh is the international key account manager for retail at Lamb Weston. He initiated the Whole Chain Food Waste Reduction (WCFWR) plan for the LWM UK plant in Wisbech. Together with private label supplier Fullers Foods and retailer Sainsbury's, an analysis was made of how to tackle food waste throughout the value chain. This was facilitated by the Waste Resource Action Programme (WRAP), a UK government initiative to reduce food waste throughout the supply chain. "Food waste is an issue in the entire food industry," says McDonagh. "In our case, there is not a lot of food waste, because we sell a frozen product that you can store for a long time. But ideally we want to get to zero food waste. We need to be aware of where and why this food waste arises and how to reduce it."

Paula Higby, who works at Fullers Foods approached Lamb Weston at the end of 2019 to join WRAP in mapping out food waste in their supply chain. “As we knew Lamb Weston were already working on preventing food waste, this seemed like a great partnership." According to Paula. "Getting together with the whole supply chain is very rare. It provided a unique opportunity for all links in the chain to understand how decisions made at each stage of the development and launch of a product can affect waste”.

From crop to customer: starting the dialogue with each other how to prevent food waste in the potato value chain. The grower, the agronomist, the potato processor, the customer, the retailer and people from WRAP and IGD. This picture was taken during the ‘whole chain’ visit on 11 February 2020, a month before the COVID-19 virus started to spread through Europe.

Many British retailers are keen to tackle food waste. They communicate this in store directly to their customers. "Sainsbury's has set high targets, and because they report into WRAP, we are also setting targets throughout the supply chain to prevent food waste, to help meet these targets" McDonagh says. Target, Measure, Act is the WRAP slogan. So, set a target for each stakeholder in the value chain, measure how much food waste you generate and take targeted action to reduce it. For example, a returned frozen potato product often ends up as animal feed because you cannot sell a private label product elsewhere, and the remaining shelf life is sometimes too short. Fullers Foods are working with their cold store to re-distribute product with short shelf lives via redistribution charities and businesses.

Step in the right direction

If a company wants to make their supply chain more sustainable, this is already a step into the right direction, Toine Timmermans believes. He is programme manager for sustainable food chains at Wageningen University and Research (WUR) and director of the Dutch collective “United against Food Waste”. Timmermans considers mapping out what is produced from a single product as the first step towards sustainability. "This allows you to measure where the opportunities are to increase the value of the residual flows. So, for example: Wherever possible, we want to utilise all of our residual flows for human consumption. That objective must be leading and supported throughout the entire organisation."

In 2013, Lamb Weston conducted an in-depth analysis of the food loss and waste in its own value chain for one of its Dutch plants. This resulted in the food loss and waste (FLW) Mass Balance model, which provided insight into the loss and waste of raw materials per process step, why this happened and whether it could be reduced. With the WRAP project in the UK, this analysis has been made specific to the Wisbech plant and extended to the whole value chain. The food loss and waste balance is updated annually to monitor progress and assess where adjustments can be made. 

How much fries and flakes can you get out of a potato?

Since September 2019, Mariska van Dalen is Manager ‘Sustainability by Design’ at Lamb Weston. Her role is to validate all investments on their contribution to the sustainability agenda and assess where things can be improved. Next to this she leads the ‘Zero Waste’ program at LW. Since 2011, the potato processor has had a clear sustainability strategy. One of the three pillars of its new sustainability agenda for 2030 is “Zero Waste”, aimed at preventing and reducing (food) waste. LWM does this by first producing as much end product as possible from the pile of potatoes sourced, approximately 1.6 billion kilos per year. "The largest potatoes are used for the well-known French fries, the medium-sized for potato specialities like Twister fries and the smallest are processed into for instance seasoned potato wedges. The slivers and shorts with blemishes are used to produce dried potato flakes. Since 2008, we have been making more and more skin-on products, which means that less potato peels need to go into animal feed as a by-product. We see that other potato processors are also actively working on this subject, so we are taking steps with the entire sector to reduce food waste," says Van Dalen.

To improve potato utilisation, the company keeps a close eye on the processes. Thus, it prevents a potato product intended for human consumption being downgraded. The Moerman ladder, a food waste hierarchy model,  is used for this purpose. This should ensure that any residual flows, such as the potato peels, are “valorised” to the highest degree, which means that they are on the same step or one step higher on the Moerman ladder.

Recently, Lamb Weston has also been focusing more actively on selling ‘skin-on’ potato products. "This way, the product retains more flavour and dietary fibre. And we use less energy in our process because the skin does not need to be removed, which takes place in a steam boiler. Moreover, you are left with fewer steam peels, which now go into cattle feed," says Van Dalen. Our innovation policy is that every new product(concept) should contain at least one skin-on product.  For potato by-products that are no longer suitable for human or animal consumption because of hygiene and food safety regulation, the company looks for the highest possible level of valorisation. Van Dalen: "For example, relatively small amounts of used frying oil, left in the fryer during a sanitation stop, is removed and separately collected and sold locally as biodiesel for trucks."  

No biodigestors on-site

Lamb Weston already wastes little food (<1%). This is partly because they are one of the very few potato processors that have consciously chosen to not digest its residual flows for biogas production. The only exception is its plant in Austria, which had already its own bio-digester when the company was acquired in 2011. "We want to valorise our raw materials and end products preferably as food for people. If this is not possible, then to feed animals. If you invest in your own bio-digester, it will stay operational for twenty years and you want it to have a maximum return: so either ‘use them or lose them’. And you will likely also use them for your potato peels and perhaps even for unsold finished products or customer product returns. This destroys the nutritional value and we don't think that is sustainable."

Timmermans of the WUR agrees; the aim must always be to valorise the raw materials. "Bio-digestion basically is a perverse incentive. There are subsidies on biomass as a source of renewable energy. As a result, residual flows go into digesters that could actually have gone to feed people or animals. This is officially considered food waste." He therefore argues that these incentives should be removed by insisting on the highest possible destination of the residual flows. “This will result in the residual flows which are now processed as food waste in bio-digesters, going to animals. That's how you move it up the Moerman ladder. Take, for example, tomatoes: the butts and heads of tomatoes are made into soup and ketchup. Those are the models of the future." 

We cannot wait any longer

It is important that the high valorisation of products is carried through the entire value chain, i.e. both with suppliers and customers. Lamb Weston already collaborates with its growers and now can take the next step with customers, as is the case in this WRAP ‘whole chain’ project.

According to Van Dalen, there has been a change in recent years in terms of sustainable business practices and reducing food waste. "It's not like ten years ago, where only the frontrunners were concerned; now everyone wants to be involved. With our internal 'Changemakers' programme, we are raising awareness of more sustainable choices in all parts of our business, and therefore with all the partners we collaborate with. Food Waste is a major societal issue that we need to solve together. Doing nothing is not an option.”