Nothing to lose Quality, safety, loss and waste

Food that does not appeal to consumers goes unbought and uneaten. Food that is contaminated by pathogens or chemicals is unsafe to eat – and cannot be counted as food. All along the value chain, starting in the field and ending in the kitchen or dining room, food is lost or wasted. Because they are perishable and fragile, fruit and vegetables are especially at risk of going uneaten (FAO, 2019).

This chapter focuses on four related issues: food quality, food safety, and losses and waste. It outlines the factors relating to each, and how quality and safety can be assured and how losses and waste can be minimized.


Go into a market or shop anywhere in the world: shoppers will be picking and choosing fruit and vegetables according to their look and feel. They want firm tomatoes, yellow bananas, unwilted lettuce, apples without maggots, blemish-free mangoes, and fresh spinach. Traders constantly sort through their stock to toss out damaged or overripe produce. Supermarkets package delicate items to prevent bruising and extend their shelf life. Greengrocers spray water on their wares to keep leaves pert and flies away.

By definition, consumer expectations and perceptions will also determine their perception of food quality (Box 6). What may be unacceptable to one consumer may be perfectly acceptable to another. Consumers often assess quality on a subjective basis: their choice depends on their expectations. Firms use quality standards based on objective measurements, driven by data on temperature, firmness, sugar content and shelf-life predictions for fresh produce.

Box 6. Food quality and food safety

Food quality describes the attributes of a food that influence its value and that make it acceptable or desirable for the consumer. The ideal of food quality therefore differs across countries and cultures.

Food safety is the assurance that food will not cause harm to the consumer when it is prepared and/or eaten according to its intended use (CXC, 1969). Unlike food quality, food safety is non-negotiable.

© FAO/Heba Khamis
© FAO/Heba Khamis

Quality is especially important to serve all markets, and particularly high-value markets: exports, supermarkets, hotels and restaurants. Commercial quality standards for fruit and vegetables are developed and approved by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe through its Working Party on Agricultural Quality Standards (UNECE, 2020). These international standards facilitate trade, encourage high-quality production, improve profitability and protect consumer interests. They are used by governments, producers, traders, importers and exporters, as well as international organizations.

Stakeholders along the value chain emphasize different aspects of quality.

  • Producers value factors such as yield, resistance to pests and diseases, and ease of harvesting.
  • Wholesalers and retailers place a premium on size, form, colour and safety. They often require the produce to comply with in-house or industry standards.
  • Consumers are more interested in the visual appearance, texture, firmness, sensory and nutritional properties.

Factors affecting quality

Fruit and vegetable quality is influenced by extrinsic and intrinsic factors. Extrinsic factors include the production environment, how the produce is handled during harvest and at various stages of the supply chain, and how it is packaged and presented for sale to consumers. Intrinsic factors relate to the food itself: its visual appearance (size, form, and colour), texture, firmness, sensory and nutritional properties, and food safety. All these attributes are of interest and value to consumers.

The best type of handling and packaging depends on the type of produce. Bananas, for example, should be kept at a temperature of 12–15°C. Cauliflower needs cooler temperatures (0–5°C).

Because produce continues to respire during storage, it consumes oxygen from within the packaging and emits carbon dioxide, slowing down the ageing process and extending shelf life. But if the packaging is airtight, there will not be enough oxygen left and the produce will die. That is why plastic packaging often has perforations to allow a controlled amount of oxygen to reach the contents (MAP, 2012). Ethylene gas emitted by fruit hastens the ripening, aging and eventually spoilage: putting ripe bananas (which emit a lot of ethylene) next to apples will speed their ripening.

Basis on which consumers purchase produce

Consumers purchase fresh produce on the basis of search, experience and credence attributes (Box 7).

  • Search attributes are evident from the appearance of the produce itself: the consumer can see whether a fruit is over-ripe or bruised, and decide not to buy it.
  • Experience attributes become evident only after purchase: when the buyer bites into the fruit and discovers its eating quality – its taste and texture.
  • Credence attributes depend on information or claims from the seller: Is it safe to eat? Was the item grown locally? Is it organic? Is it free of pesticide residues? Such information may be included on a label, but fresh fruit and vegetables are often sold unpackaged without a label. This attribute also depends on consumers’ trusting what is printed there, as the consumer can often not verify claims from the seller at the time of purchase.

Box 7. Quality attributes based on consumer perceptions

Search attributes

Can be checked directly before purchase.

  • Colour, size, firmness, blemishes

Experience attributes

Evident only after purchase, but influence whether someone buys the same produce item again.

  • Taste, texture, cooking quality

Credence attributes

Cannot be assessed before or after purchase; depend on credibility of supplier. Often given on labels.

  • (Sometimes) food safety
  • Organic, fair trade, local origin, pesticide residues

Adapted from Rezare Systems (2020)

© FAO/Heba Khamis
© FAO/Heba Khamis


International bodies (in particular the FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission), governments, industry groups, individual firms and non-government organizations set standards or technical regulations to guarantee the quality and safety of produce. These in turn rely on food-control systems with inspections, certification and sanctions for non-compliance. They are designed to guarantee the safety and quality of produce and assure buyers that it has been produced and processed in a particular way.

Standards and certification are especially useful where there is information asymmetry: where buyers and consumers cannot easily judge the safety and quality aspects of products or production processes. One example is the environmental friendliness of organic produce. This is a “credence attribute” because consumers have no way of checking that an item was actually produced organically (Caswell and Mojduszka, 1996). Certification systems (and the labelling of certified products) aim to provide a verification or a “burden of proof” that given standards have been complied with.

International standards (FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission). The Codex Alimentarius, or “Food Code” is a collection of food standards, guidelines and codes of practice that have been developed by independent experts and specialists in a wide range of disciplines to ensure they withstand the most rigorous scientific scrutiny (Table 2).

Table 2. Meeting standards and ensuring safety

Established by FAO and WHO in 1963 to protect consumer health and promote fair practices in food trade, Codex forms the basis upon which countries develop their national food regulations. These standards enable firms to trade with each other in confidence that the produce they are buying will be in accordance with internationally recognized specifications. Codex standards cover the general quality requirements, plus a list of permitted pesticides, the permissible limits of approved pesticides, postharvest treatments such as waxing, labelling and packaging requirements, and permitted levels of contaminants. Without these common standards, international trade in these products would be a lot more difficult.

Business-to-business. Private standards such the BRC Global Standard for Food Safety (BRCGS, 2020) are typically business-to-business arrangements. Such certification communicates assurance to buyers that the supplier is compliant with the quality standard – although sometimes a quality mark is marketed directly to consumers.

Business-to-consumer. Standards related to sustainability or environ-mental protection typically follow a business-to-consumer model. So too do those directed to niche markets such as organics. Certified produce is marketed to consumers at point of sale, often via a label attached to the product. Labels that list “credence attributes” such as organic or fair trade fall into this category (Box 7).

Where standards are imposed by a government (such as ISO standards (ISO, 2017)) or a nongovernment organization (such as Global G.A.P. (2020)), the consumer can be reasonably confident that the product actually is what the label says it is. But many firms add their own labels that are not subject to independent verification.


Fruit and vegetables may be rich in vitamins and other nutrients – but what if they are not safe to eat? Then they will not provide any benefits to consumers but may cause them to get sick or even die – they cannot be regarded as food. They may harbour dangerous pathogens or be contaminated with chemicals.

Washing, peeling and cooking can help remove some of these dangers (although peeling and cooking may lead to the loss of some nutrients). But many fruit are eaten unpeeled and raw, as are salads, tomatoes, cucumbers, beansprouts and other vegetables.

Consumers can detect poor-quality fruit and vegetables reasonably easily, so decide not to buy them. This is not the case for food-safety problems, which may go undetected until the produce has been eaten. They may then cause health problems immediately – such as food poisoning by E. coli bacteria – or long-term problems, as with heavy metals.

Food-borne diseases

Outbreaks of food-borne diseases can result in catastrophic consequences for consumers and producers alike. Food-safety hazards can result in products being excluded from the market, causing major economic losses and costs for producers, processors and traders. Assuring food safety must always therefore take precedence over achieving high levels of other quality attributes.

Food-borne diseases are estimated to cause some 600 million illnesses and 420 000 deaths around the globe every year (WHO, 2015). The World Bank estimates that diseases resulting from the consumption of unsafe foods cost low- and middle-income countries alone USD 110 billion in lost productivity, lost trade and medical expenses a year (Jaffee et al., 2019).

Such diseases are commonly associated with two major food groups: fruit and vegetables, and animal products (Minnesota Department of Health). Fresh produce containing excessive amounts of chemical residues or exposed to pollution or microbial contamination has been linked to a series of food-borne disease outbreaks around the world over the last few years (Hussain and Gooneratne, 2017). Fruit and vegetables that are eaten raw, and especially those that are not peeled or washed in clean water, can transmit pathogens and dangerous chemicals (WHO, 2005). Public concern about these risks is at an all-time high.

Safety controls

Safety controls protect both consumer health and business interests by ensuring that traded produce complies with food-safety standards and that it is safe to eat. Because produce can be contaminated all along the value chain, controls are needed at each stage (Table 3).

Table 3. Food safety risks along the value chain

Source: FAO (2004)

Source: FAO (2004)

Good practices. In addition, FAO issues recommendations for good practices in agriculture, manufacturing and hygiene for fruit and vegetables. These aim to help farmers, traders and processors achieve the standards set out in the Codex Alimentarius.

Standard operating procedures. These are written, detailed and accessible descriptions explaining how each operation should be performed. They assure that operations (including maintenance, sanitation, pest control and waste handling) are efficiently and appropriately performed.

Hazard analysis and critical control points. This system, known as HACCP, is based on one developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the United States to ensure that astronauts were not affected by food-borne diseases during their space missions. Rather than testing the final product, it identifies critical points in the production system, determines the problems likely to occur at those points, and eliminates them. This is especially important for food products in order to avoid food becoming unsafe for consumption and causing unnecessary wastage.

© FAO/Karen Minasyan
© FAO/Karen Minasyan

Traceability. This is the ability to follow (“trace”) the movement of a food product as it passes through specified stages from the producer to the consumer (Box 8).

Box 8. Innovations in traceability

Traceability is a must-have in fruit and vegetable supply chains to mitigate and manage risks associated with food-safety recalls.

New traceability practices that use digital technology help ensure food safety and quality, optimize supply chains and reduce loss by making spoilage problems readily detectable (WEF, 2019).

Blockchain is an increasingly popular method of traceability because it connects all the stakeholders’ digital records and events in a tamper-resistant format. The information can be accessed at any point from anywhere, yet it cannot be edited or deleted.

If a food-safety problem arises, the source can be quickly identified and batches from the same source removed from the market. Traceability also makes it possible to provide reliable product information and guarantee authenticity – for example for organic or regional produce.

Responsibility for food safety

Various stakeholders share responsibility for food safety.

National governments are responsible for establishing a national food-control system with appropriate legal and policy instruments, well-qualified human resources, sound institutional frameworks and the financial assets, equipment and infrastructure for them to carry out inspections. They also enforce compliance and issue penalties for violations or non-compliance.

National Codex Committees facilitate the aligning of national regulations with the Codex, provide coordination among national stakeholders, and contribute to the development of Codex standards and related texts.

National governments are also responsible for ensuring the supporting infrastructure is able to supply adequate quantities of safe fruit and vegetables. This includes roads for market access, water supplies, power for equipment and cooling systems, access to laboratories and suitable storage facilities.

The private sector, from producers to retailers, is responsible for ensuring compliance throughout the food chain and the necessary facilities, systems, tools and well-trained staff to achieve this.

FAO and WHO provide guidance, scientific advice and build capacity in support of food safety and quality, including supporting countries in establishing and/or strengthening national food control systems.

Codex Alimentarius develops internationally recognized food standards (for specific fruit and vegetables in fresh and processed form), associated Recommended Codes of Practice, as well as guidance on labelling, packaging and transport (CXC, 1995, 2003).

Weak links in the chain

Inspection, certification and enforcement. Food safety inspection and certification, which are part of the official food control system, are not always adequate. Problems include a lack of effective communication and coordination mechanisms resulting in duplication and/or gaps, appropriately trained staff, equipment and transport, poor enforcement and an inadequate legislative framework. At the higher end of the market, private entities impose their own standards, which smallholders may find hard to comply with.

Local trade and home consumption. Many fruit and vegetables are either traded locally or are eaten by the people who grow them. At the consumption end of the value chain, formal standards are often not enforced and it is left up to consumers or traders to reject substandard produce. But this may not happen because it is impossible for them to detect food-safety problems merely by looking at the produce on offer. At the same time, growers may not realize that they are the cause of contamination because of inappropriate use of chemicals or contaminated irrigation water. Even if they do know this, it may be in their interests to keep quiet about it so they can sell their output and earn an income for their family.

Consumer behaviour. Peeling fruit and vegetables or washing them in clean water can help remove or reduce contaminants on the surface. But access to clean, potable water is not universal. Nonetheless, information campaigns to encourage hygiene at point of use could go a long way to making these nutritious products safe for consumption.

© FAO/Luis Tato
© FAO/Luis Tato

Loss and waste

Huge amounts of food are lost or wasted every year. This is particularly true of fruit and vegetables because most are highly perishable. Loss and waste of fruit and vegetables represent a waste of nutrients.

Food loss and food waste are not the same thing (Table 4). Postharvest food losses take place in the supply chain from harvest until arrival at the wholesale market. Food waste takes place mainly in retail, in the food-service sector and in households.

Table 4. Food loss and food waste

Source: FAO (2019)

Source: FAO (2019)

How much is lost or wasted?

A synthesis (FAO, 2019) of numerous studies measuring loss and waste in fruit and vegetables in three world regions found that postharvest losses were high in both East and Southeast Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa (the coloured bars in Figure 13), though with different emphases (the “critical loss points”, Box 9). In East and Southeast Asia, loss was highest during storage (with a median of over 20 percent lost) and processing and packaging. In sub-Saharan Africa, the highest levels of loss occurred on the farm and in wholesale markets. Loss and waste in Central and South Asia tended to be lower, with loss during transport being the highest.

Figure 13. Loss and waste of fruit and vegetables

Adapted from FAO (2019) p. 26. Based on 660 observations. Excludes outliers.

Adapted from FAO (2019) p. 26. Based on 660 observations. Excludes outliers.

Box 9. Critical loss points

Critical loss points are the points along the food supply chain where food losses have the highest magnitude, the greatest impact on food security and the largest economic dimensions (FAO, 2019).

These median figures mask huge variations. Some studies have found that up to 50 percent of the fruit and vegetables are lost during storage (in East and Southeast Asia) and on farm (in sub-Saharan Africa) (these are shown as the T-lines in Figure 13). These findings imply that there is a major potential for improvements in value chains in all regions.

Causes of loss and waste

Loss and waste are systemic and take place along the food supply chain from postharvest to retail. Loss is highest in developing countries and results from a lack of technology and infrastructure (FAO, 2019) and a weak knowledge base of supply-chain stakeholders. At the retail and consumer stages, behavioural issues, inappropriate storage and excessive handling of fruit and vegetables in retail are more often the cause of waste.

High levels of qualitative and quantitative loss occur in low- and middle-income countries where farms and rural activities are poorly organized and apply rudimentary technologies and approaches. The loss sustained by smallholders in these countries is caused mainly by the poor functioning of the supply chain.

Problems include limited technical capacity, poor production and handling practices, inadequate infrastructure such as feeder roads, potable water, electricity and packhouses, as well as packaging, transport and storage capacity, and the institutional and legal framework. Poor bulk packaging results in loss during transport (Box 10 and FAO, 2017). Without shade or refrigeration, yeast and mould cause produce to spoil quickly in hot, humid climates.

Box 10. Reducing loss in mangoes

Transport is the critical loss point in the mango value chain in the Philippines, a study by the University of the Philippines at Los Baños found (FAO, 2020).

Forms of mechanical damage included cuts and punctures (1 percent), compression (1.9 percent), abrasion (2.8 percent), bruising (2.0 percent) and marking from the bamboo baskets (3.8 percent) in which mangoes are transported to wholesale markets. After 5 days in retail outlets, up to 90 percent of mangoes showed mechanical damage. Decay and economic loss were the results.

Improved packaging reduced such problems. Using rigid plastic crates instead of bamboo baskets reduced damage and loss and improved quality available in the market as well as the shelf life of mangoes.

Food that is contaminated and does not meet safety criteria is not fit for human consumption and must be disposed of. Produce that appears visually perfect may be contaminated microbiologically, so present a risk to the health of the consumer.

Food waste may result from stringent commercial quality standards at the retail stage that emphasize aesthetic appeal. “Ugly fruit” are rejected even though they are perfectly sound and fit for consumption from a nutritional and safety point of view: bent cucumbers, green beans that are not perfectly even, and tomatoes that are not evenly ripe.

Impacts of loss and waste

Most obviously, malnourished children stay hungry if they do not have access to food. High rates of loss and waste represent a waste of nutrients, a waste of money and lower profits in production and the value chain, lower incomes for producers, and higher costs for consumers. Smallholder producers and consumers who have little money to spare are especially hard hit.

Food that is contaminated – whether by pathogens, toxins or chemicals – may appear to be of good quality but must be discarded as it may pose a health risk.

Loss and waste also translate into wasted inputs, land, water, energy and other resources used to grow, process and handle the produce, boosting the emission of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Many consumers do not realize that food waste is related to such concerns.

Reducing loss and waste

Postharvest management seeks to manage and maintain the quality of food after harvest and to reduce loss. In the traditional supply chains that predominate in developing countries, fresh produce must be harvested at the appropriate stage of maturity, sorted to remove decaying produce, washed if appropriate, dried, and properly packaged for transport.

Postharvest treatments, such as hot-water and vapour-heat treatments, can reduce pre-harvest pest and disease infestations in specific crops such as mangoes and papayas. Customers themselves also need to reduce waste by planning their fruit and vegetable purchases and storing them properly (Esguerra et al., 2017).

Fresh produce is best packaged in rigid containers to reduce mechanical damage (Rapusas and Rolle, 2009). During transportation, air must be able to flow through the produce, while minimizing water loss that can cause wilting or shrivelling, weight loss and a decline in quality. Improved packaging and transport reduce mechanical damage, limits the need for handling, and speeds up delivery to retailers and consumers. On arrival in wholesale markets, the produce must be sorted, and re-packaged in accordance with customer demand.

Cooling during transportation can slow the growth of certain microorganisms, reduce spoilage rates of good quality produce, lengthen shelf-life and reduce losses and waste in fruit and vegetables.

Traceability is a must-have in fruit and vegetable supply chains to mitigate and manage risks associated with food-safety recalls. New traceability practices that make use of digital technology help ensure food safety and quality, optimize supply chains and reduce loss by making spoilage problems readily detectable (WEF, 2019). A growing array of sensors that monitor temperature and other metrics in real-time during transportation, will contribute greatly to assuring the safety and quality of food as it transits across supply chains.

© FAO/Pedro Costa Gomes
© FAO/Pedro Costa Gomes

Non-compliance with established food safety measures may lead to higher levels of losses in trade, for example if food is rejected because pesticide residues exceed contamination limits. In a world where 690 million people go to bed hungry every night and three billion cannot afford a healthy diet, wasting food on the basis of aesthetics is ethically unacceptable. Consumers should be given the option to buy “ugly produce” that is safe but does not meet aesthetic standards. Such items are just as nutritious as food that is cosmetically more attractive. Selling them at a lower price would particularly benefit poorer consumers.

Solutions include incentives to support technologies to improve handling, public–private partnerships to support infrastructure and marketing problems, innovations to upscale good practices, and training for stakeholders in the supply chain.

The increasing importance of supermarkets in much of the world will force producers to conform to quality standards – although consideration is increasingly being given to relaxing these standards in order to reduce waste. Nevertheless, the high levels of waste in retail must not be overlooked, particularly during the current COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, efforts are needed to ensure that smallholders can benefit from market opportunities and can supply the volumes and quality of produce they demand.