Why and How to Measure Food Loss and Waste

Distribution and Wholesale - Why and How to Measure Food Loss and Waste


Food distributors and wholesalers ensure that food products make it to market and consumers. Distributors typically maintain exclusive buying agreements with producers, manufacturers and processors or provide products to a certain territory. They rarely sell goods directly to consumers but may work with wholesalers (or larger retailers) that buy in bulk. Wholesalers typically resell goods to retailers, while retailers resell goods directly to consumers.

Because they are subject to supply and demand fluctuations across the food supply chain, they must balance time sensitivity and cost in their operations. Variability within the distribution and wholesale sector can also affect FLW downstream, in the food service, retail and household stages.

In distribution and wholesale, FLW can be caused by damage and spoilage, lack of cold-chain infrastructure, delays during transport (e.g., border inspections), variable customer demands, modification or cancellation of orders, product specifications, variable cost of transport methods, inaccurate forecasting or purchasing, miscommunication with other entities further up and down the food supply chain, and many other factors.

As the specifics of this sector vary by country, so do the root causes behind the associated FLW. Thus generation and prevention of FLW differ from country to country and even from organization to organization, and interventions must be tailored to the context.

Some approaches to preventing FLW in distribution and wholesale are listed below.

  • Work with actors upstream in the food supply chain to increase the share of second-grade products that are accepted and valorized to some point.
  • Improve cold-chain management and infrastructure to prevent spoilage or degradation during storage and transport.
  • Work with actors across the food supply chain to expand value-added processing to increase the proportion of produced food able to be consumed. This could include the creation of processes to valorize food that is damaged or deteriorates during transport and distribution.
  • Adjust packaging to extend the life of food products and reduce damage during storage or transport.
  • Rethink business models to maintain freshness and reduce shrink.

Methods Used to Measure FLW

Appropriate methods for FLW measurement depend on the context of who is doing the measuring and what information is available. Start by answering the five questions below.

  • Do you have direct access to the FLW? Does the method require the ability to directly count, handle or weigh the FLW?
  • What level of accuracy do you need? How accurate will the data gathered with this method be?
  • What amount of time and resources can you assign to measuring FLW? The relative amount of resources (time, money, equipment) needed to carry out the method.
  • Do you need a method that can tracks causes of FLW? Some methods can track causes associated with FLW and others cannot.
  • Do you want to track progress over time? Some methods can assess increases or decreases in FLW across time to track progress.

Based on your needs and the answers to these questions, you can use Table 10 to determine which method or methods are most appropriate. If you are addressing multiple types of FLW (for example, both solid and liquid FLW), you may need to select multiple types of methods.

Table 10. Methods Used to Measure FLW in the Distribution and Wholesale Sector

Method Name Direct FLW Access Needed? Level of Accuracy? Level of Resources Required? Tracks Causes? Tracks Progress Over Time?
Methods for gathering new data
Waste Composition Analysis Yes High High No Yes
Methods based on existing data
Mass Balance No Medium Low No Yes
Proxy Data No Low Low No No
Records No Variable* Low No Yes
Less commonly used methods at the distribution and wholesale sector
Diaries No Low-Medium Medium Yes Yes
Direct Measurement Yes High High Yes Yes
Interviews/Surveys No Low-Medium Medium-High Yes Yes

*Accuracy depends on the type of record used: for example, waste transfer receipts may be highly accurate for determing FLW levels, whereas other records are less accurate.
Note: The methods named are nonexhaustive.
Source: Authors.

If you need additional guidance in selecting a method, the FLW Quantification Method Ranking Tool published by the Food Loss and Waste Protocol asks a series of 11 questions and provides a ranked list of methods based on your circumstances.

Case Study for the Distribution and Wholesale Sector

The Mexican Transport Institute (Instituto Mexicano del Transporte–IMT) developed a methodology to identify cold-chain coverage and gaps across the country. The IMT uses a database with several metrics, including origin and destination of shipments, classification of loads, ownership of transportation units and cost of transportation. It monitors the status of the distribution and transportation system across Mexico alongside relevant costs, shipment data and records. This allows them to identify potential FLW hotspots and regions needing cold-chain management and infrastructure (Morales 2016, CEC 2017).