China’s Abundant Table: Where Does All the Food Go?

April 26, 2013
  • Min Bao

    Former Manager, BSR

Min Bao, Manager, Partnership Development, BSR, and Xiaoshu Wang, Associate, Advisory Services, BSR

Recently, while dining out, I watched as the waiters clearing our table from the previous customers removed dishes that were only half finished and others that were barely even touched.

Ordering too much food is normal in China, where an abundance of food shows the hospitality of the hosts. If you ask people why they order so much, they will likely say they don’t want to be embarrassed if there’s not enough food for everyone. But because packing up leftovers is not a habit here, the extra food goes uneaten. Recently, the government has highlighted the waste at banquets (paid for by public funds), which have even more excess. Other sources of waste include poorly managed food preparation, procurement, storage, estimation of ingredients, and cooking approach.

According to China Agricultural University and Friends of Nature, China’s catering industry throws away 8 million tons of food protein and 3 million tons of fat per year—enough to feed 200 million people. If you add in food waste from canteens and households, the numbers are even more shocking.

On a positive note, there is increasing awareness of the negative impacts of food waste. A Clean Plate campaign, advocating zero food waste when eating out, was a hot topic on Weibo (a Chinese version of Twitter) in early 2013, and the message was forwarded 50 million times.

The food industry has also taken some initiative in reducing waste. Increasing numbers of restaurants remind customers to order a suitable amount of dishes and provide more flexible serving sizes. In Shanghai, it’s now common for restaurants to offer half-servings of menu items.

Groups like the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) are providing support as well: The UNEP launched a food-waste-reduction campaign in China earlier this year, promoting general public awareness and also providing recommendations on things like minimal packaging, and how to quickly sell food that is about to expire. Unilever Food also works with chefs and restaurant managers to reduce food waste in the catering industry.

As the most populous country in the world, with per capita arable land at less than 40 percent of the global average, China can no longer afford to waste the 12 percent of its food that it does on an annual basis (according to the director of China’s national food bureau). Civil society, government, NGOs, and the business sector all need to contribute to the effort of reducing food waste.

For more about BSR’s work on food waste, visit our Food Waste page.

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