Human error major cause of food waste in manufacturing – study

Human errors caused by a lack of standardised procedures and insufficient training are the major drivers of food waste in the manufacturing process, a new study has found.

Researchers at Brunel University London and Ghent University studied the production processes at 47 food manufacturers in Belgium to determine where the highest losses were observed.

Their paper – “Importance of Sustainable Operations in Food Loss – Evidence from the Belgian food processing industry” – and findings have been published in the journal Annals of Operations Research

They found that human error accounted for 10.9% of all food waste, second only to the losses recorded as a result of product change – changing the food output of a manufacturing facility.

Dr Manoj Dora of Brunel Business School, who led the study, said: “At most of the companies we went to, there was no standardisation of work or visual management in place. It’s a management issue.

“In many instances, there wasn’t proper training or a standardisation of work being applied in their workplace, and as a result there was a greater tendency towards errors, and therefore, more food waste.”

The researchers gathered data from a variety of companies, ranging from ready meal makers to drinks manufacturers. On average, the manufacturers suffer a loss of 1 tonne of food for every 35 tonnes they produce. 

Where 10.9% of this loss was accounted for by human error and 13% was caused by product changes, a further 8.7% was attributed to product defects and 6.4% as a result of buyer contracts.

Dr Dora added: “Aside from human error, another key area of loss is product changes. Say you’re making a tomato sauce and when you’ve finished you want to make a mustard sauce, then this means the whole process must be cleaned. This whole process contributes a significant amount of loss.”

One of the most interesting findings, said the researchers, was how unaware many manufacturers – particularly the smaller ones – were of how much food they were wasting.

“We were amazed to see how little companies didn’t actually measure how much they were throwing away, and they were surprised to see in monetary terms how much they’re losing because of food loss,” said Dr Dora.

“Good collaboration, appropriate measurement systems and the implementation of lean management tools in the production process can significantly reduce food loss.”

The study has been released as the UK government appoints its first food surplus and waste champion, in a move to curb the estimated 10.2 million tonnes of food which is wasted annually.

Source: Brunel University London

Journal reference:

“Importance of sustainable operations in food loss: evidence from the Belgian food processing industry”

Manoj Dora, Joshua Wesana, Xavier Gellynck, Nitin Seth in Annals of Operations Research (2019)