A Sum of Incidentals or a Structural Problem?
The True Nature of Food Waste in the Metropolitan
Region of Barcelona
Raquel Diaz-Ruiz 1, * , Montserrat Costa-Font 2, Feliu López-i-Gelats 1,3 and JoséM. Gil 1
1Center for Agro-Food Economy and Development (CREDA-UPC-IRTA), C/Esteve Terrades 8,
08860 Castelldefels, Spain; firstname.lastname@example.org (F.L.-i.-G.); email@example.com (J.M.G.)
2Land Economy, Environment and Society Research Group, Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC),
West Mains Road, Edinburgh EH9 3JG, UK; Montse.CostaFont@sruc.ac.uk
Chair of Agroecology and Food Systems, University of Vic - Central University of Catalonia, 08500 Vic, Spain
*Correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org; Tel.: +34-935-521-208
Received: 5 September 2018; Accepted: 15 October 2018; Published: 17 October 2018
Addressing the generation of food waste is a major challenge nowadays. An increasing
interest in studying food waste generation has emerged over the last decade. However, little attention
has been devoted to understanding the root of the problem by carrying out a whole-supply-chain
analysis and applying multidimensional approaches. The aim of this paper was to identify the causes
of food waste in the metropolitan region of Barcelona along the food supply chain, considering the
relevant stakeholders’ perceptions. Moreover, we examined the circumstantial or structural nature
of the identiﬁed causes. We conducted a qualitative study consisting of 24 in-depth interviews
of key stakeholders in the region along the food supply chain from October 2014 to January 2015.
The interviews were analyzed by content analysis, and the main results are presented here. We used
a conceptual framework that differentiates among micro, meso, and macro causes to disentangle the
nature of the causes. The results from this study show the great interest of regional stakeholders in
the issue of the generation of food waste and provide a complete map of the causes of food waste in
the metropolitan region. From our study, we advocate that food waste is not only a sum of incidentals
but it a structural problem.
food waste; stakeholders; causes; food supply chain; interviews; Barcelona metropolitan region
Finding alternatives to develop more sustainable food systems is a major challenge that
society is facing today. Multiple efforts are being devoted to better understand such food systems,
and consequently, to develop more sustainable alternatives (e.g., [
]). In this context, food waste
has emerged as one of the most relevant domains of the current unsustainability [
]. The estimates
of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) suggest that one-third of the
food produced globally is being lost or wasted along the food supply chain [
]. In Europe, a recent
estimation has indicated that 88 million tons of food are wasted annually [
]. The magnitude of the
numbers has fostered wide and growing agreement regarding the necessity of urgently addressing
the issue of food waste generation. The United Nations agreed in 2015, within the deﬁnition of its
Sustainable Development Goals, to halve food waste and reduce food losses by 2030 [
]. In Europe,
the European Union’s (EU) recently approved Circular Economy Package has allocated a key role to
food waste prevention and reduction .
The increasing awareness of the importance of the food waste challenge has grown in parallel
with the number of publications devoted to better understanding this phenomenon, especially during
Sustainability 2018,10, 3730; doi:10.3390/su10103730 www.mdpi.com/journal/sustainability
Sustainability 2018,10, 3730 2 of 19
the last decade [
]. Such publications have been particularly focused on the consumption stage [
The research on food waste has been diverse. To date, the relevant publications have mainly been
focused on understanding consumer behavior (e.g., [
]) or quantifying the generated volume
of food waste (e.g., [
]) and its associated environmental or economic impact (e.g., [
However, there is still considerable room for advancement. Numerous gaps still prevail concerning
the underlying factors of food waste generation [
]. Despite efforts to standardize food waste
quantiﬁcations (e.g., the Food Loss and Waste protocol [
] and the Food Use for Social Innovation by
Optimising Waste Prevention Strategies (FUSIONS) protocol [
]), there is still no single agreed-upon
deﬁnition of food waste, neither internationally nor in Europe [
]. The discrepancies in the
more adequate methodologies for undertaking the sound quantiﬁcation of food waste make it difﬁcult
to compare results from different studies [
]. The complexity of the phenomenon suggests the
necessity of taking a step back and examining the roots of the food waste phenomenon.
Despite the rapidly increasing body of literature dealing with the food waste issue, only a few
studies have attempted to focus on analyzing where the roots of the problem lie, that is, the causes of
the phenomenon. A great diversity of studies, ad hoc reports, papers, and books have been published
in the last decade (see Table 1). They fundamentally employed secondary data to identify the causes
of food waste at different geographical scales, ranging from worldwide to regional levels of analysis.
Most of these studies used a partial view approach, that is, they included only speciﬁc stages of the
supply chain in the analysis. On the other hand, those considering all the stages of the food supply
chain dealt with secondary data. To our knowledge, there is only one study—by Göbel et al. [
has used primary data, which was collected by means of expert interviews along the whole food
supply chain in the region of North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany to examine the causes of food waste
using whole-supply-chain analysis.
Table 1. Review of studies analyzing the causes of food waste.
References Type of Document Type of Data * Geographical Scope
WRAP et al., 2007  Report 1 United Kingdom (UK)
WRAP and Quested, 2009  Report 2 UK
Stuart, 2009  Book 2 Worldwide
Parﬁtt et al., 2010  Paper 2 Worldwide
Bio Intelligence Service, 2010  Report 2 Europe
Mena et al., 2011  Paper 1 UK and Spain
HISPACOOP, 2012  Report 1 Spain
ARC and UAB, 2011  Report 1 + 2 Catalonia, Spain
Buzby and Hyman, 2012  Paper 2 United States
Beretta et al., 2013  Paper 1 Switzerland
European Union, 2013  Report 2 Europe
Stefan et al., 2013  Paper 1 Romania
FAO, 2013  Report 1 + 2 World
Garrone et al., 2014  Paper 1 Italy
Magrama, 2014a  Report 1 Spain
Magrama, 2014b  Report 1 Spain
Magrama, 2014c  Report 1 Spain
Mena et al., 2014  Paper 1 UK
HLPE, 2014  Report 2 Worldwide
Montagut and Gascón, 2014  Book 2 Worldwide
Parizeau et al., 2015  Paper 1 Guelph, Ontario, Canada
Göbel et al., 2015  Paper 1 North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany
Derqui et al., 2016  Paper 1 Spain
Thyberg and Tonjes, 2016  Paper 2 Worldwide
Canali et al., 2017  Paper 2 Worldwide
Hebrok and Boks, 2017  Paper 2 Worldwide
Note: * 1 means primary data, and 2 means secondary data.
Sustainability 2018,10, 3730 3 of 19
As shown in Table 1, the great majority of the existing works dealing with the causes of
food waste partially examine the issue. Thus, there is a need to implement approaches better
suited to capture the inherent complexity of the occurrence of food waste. In this context, there is
also a growing concern among the leading organizations about the importance of implementing
multidimensional and whole-supply-chain approaches to more adequately examine the food waste
The geographical scope of the analysis is also relevant when addressing food waste. The scale
determines the governance of all the agents implicated in the design of alternatives to the identiﬁed
]. Global recipes are often disseminated to address food waste at different levels:
the international, European, country-speciﬁc, regional, or municipal level. Nevertheless, recent
evidence has suggested that cultural and regional characteristics could be, to a certain extent, key
determinants of food waste generation [
]. In this context, the Resource Centres on Urban
Agriculture and Food Security (RUAF) Foundation and FAO have advocated for the use of City
Regions Food Systems as an appropriate approach that provides a valuable and useful scope for
understanding food waste occurrence within a food system [
]. Moreover, as a result of the Milan
Urban Food Urban Pact, food waste has become one of the priority areas for the sustainability of
Thus, considering both the lack of multidimensional and whole-supply-chain approaches and the
key role regions will have to play in the ﬁght against food waste, here, we aimed to ﬁll this void by
conducting a holistic analysis of the causes of food waste in a particular region, the metropolitan region
of Barcelona. The objective of this work was twofold: ﬁrst, to identify the causes of food waste in the
metropolitan region of Barcelona; and second, to examine the circumstantial or structural nature of the
causes of the food waste. In doing so, we examined the perceptions of key stakeholders along the food
supply chain in the metropolitan region of Barcelona through in-depth interviews. All the interviews
were analyzed by content analysis, and the main causes identiﬁed by the regional stakeholders were
classiﬁed according to a speciﬁc framework based upon the previous literature.
2. The Case Study: The Metropolitan Region of Barcelona
The metropolitan region of Barcelona is one of the most populated areas of Europe, located on
the Mediterranean coast in the autonomous community of Catalonia, in Spain. It has a population of
more than 4.8 million people in an area of 3236 km
]. The agri-food sector is highly relevant in
the metropolitan region through all stages of the food supply chain. A peri-urban agricultural park
is located in the region, with more than 2800 producers (Baix Llobregat Agricultural Park). The land
allocated to agricultural production is not very large, yet, the agricultural park has contributed to
preserving the farming sector in the peri-urban environment [
]. The industrial agri-food sector is
the second most important economic sector in Catalonia. Multiple national and international food
companies’ central headquarters are located in the region [
]. The Barcelona central wholesale market
is one of the main food clusters in southwestern Europe. Moreover, Barcelona city is known for
its hospitality sector’s broad offerings and fresh food local markets. Regarding waste generation,
the food industry is the major generator of tons of industrial waste, which represented 25% of the total
industrial waste in Catalonia in 2013 [
]. At the municipal level, 475 kg of waste per person per year
was collected in 2013—bio-waste was the main contributor .
During recent years, different initiatives to prevent and reduce food waste have been started in
Spain. They are largely led by grassroots movements and NGOs (e.g., “Yo no desperdicio” [
“No tires la comida” [
]), but also by other different agents, such as public bodies (e.g., “Mas alimento
menos desperdicio” [
] and “Som gent de proﬁt” [
]) and private companies (e.g., “La alimentación no
tiene desperdicio, aprovechala” [
]). However, it should be noted that, in Spain, the authority to regulate
waste and food has been transferred to autonomous regions since the 1980s. Consequently, each
autonomous region might show a different level of engagement in the food waste challenge. Catalonia
Sustainability 2018,10, 3730 4 of 19
concentrates most of its initiatives for food waste prevention and reduction in the metropolitan region
In spite of this growing interest, the scientiﬁc literature on food waste in Spain is scarce (e.g., recent
publications [34,48,72]). The dissemination of research results has been primarily conducted through
outreach documents and reports. In any case, most of the studies have been focused on one
single stage of the food supply chain—whether primary production [
], the food industry [
the supplier–retailer interface [
], food distribution and food service [
], or the consumption
]. In Catalonia, a speciﬁc quantiﬁcation of food waste from distribution to households
was carried out in 2010 [
]. Additionally, most of the studies have used different food waste conceptual
frameworks and scopes, if any, which makes it difﬁcult to make comparisons between them or even
with other studies abroad. In the metropolitan region of Barcelona, there has been no speciﬁc study on
food waste, apart from studies addressed to better understand consumers’ behavior in relation to food
3. Conceptual Framework to Distinguish Structural and Circumstantial Causes
According to the High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) on Food Security and Nutrition [
the causes of food waste are complex and can be classiﬁed into three levels—micro, meso,
and macro—according to their complexity and relationship with other drivers, as follows:
•Micro causes: speciﬁc causes of food waste occurring at each stage of the food supply chain due
to the actions or inactions of agents at the same stage. They are not necessarily linked to other
causes. Micro causes are not inﬂuenced by the behavior of agents at other stages.
Meso causes: secondary or structural causes that can be found in another stage. They occur
because of the interaction between agents or because of the existing infrastructures where food is
produced, distributed, sold, and so forth.
Macro causes: those rooted in the food system dynamics as a whole. These are systemic issues
affecting the two previous levels (micro and meso), such as the policy conditions in terms of
regulation or the functioning of the food system; that is, “macro causes favor the emergence of all
the other causes of food loss and waste” .
Distinguishing between these three groups of causes is useful to evaluate the magnitude and
the nature of the problem posed by food waste in each case. This classiﬁcation helps to differentiate
between the circumstantial nature of the causes of food waste, aligned with the micro causes, and the
structural nature of the causes of food waste, aligned with the meso and macro causes.
Alternative literature has suggested other classiﬁcations as well, to disentangle the true nature
of the different causes. In this study, we will use such classiﬁcations to better describe the identiﬁed
causes. Thus, the causes of food waste within each level (micro, meso, and macro) can be subdivided
into four additional categories: (1) technological causes [
], which are related to technical
inefﬁciencies or failures at different stages of the food supply chain; (2) economic and business
, linked to the business strategies of the different actors along
the food chain: contract standards, operational actions, and the commercial relationships of the
stakeholders in the food chain; (3) regulatory and policy causes
, which are rooted in norms
and regulations that affect the food sector, such as urban waste or food regulations, which may affect
food waste generation; and (4) appreciation and enhancement causes
(also known as values,
information, and skills in other studies), which are related to awareness, information, or speciﬁc
habits. This classiﬁcation helps to identify the domains where food waste occurs and to anticipate the
skills (proﬁles) and contexts that would be required to solve such drivers. These four domains were
proposed by Canali et al. [
] based on consultations with experts and an extensive literature review.
Moreover, a similar
classiﬁcation is used in other publications such as Göbel et al. [
] or Thyberg and
]. Finally, the speciﬁc stages of the food supply chain where the identiﬁed causes apply are
also relevant for analyzing the food waste conundrum.
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4. Materials and Methods
To achieve the objectives of this research, we conducted qualitative research to map the causes
of the food waste along the food supply chain and to understand the perceptions of stakeholders
regarding food waste. In-depth interviews of members of a panel of key stakeholders from the case
study region (the metropolitan region of Barcelona) were implemented. Thereafter, we analyzed
the results considering the conceptual framework described above. We explain the procedure of the
interviews and the characteristics of the panel below.
4.1. In-Depth Interview Procedure
Semi-structured interviews were conducted of 24 key stakeholders along the food supply chain
in the metropolitan region of Barcelona to elicit their perceptions on food waste and its causes along
the food supply chain and at all stages. Semi-structured interviews—in which the researcher makes
use of an interview guide, which is not ﬁxed—are a useful tool for gathering in-depth insights.
Researchers can modify the question ﬂow and adapt it to the answers of the interviewee, who, on the
other hand, answers all the questions without any limitation. This method is especially appropriate in
exploratory studies. One of its weaknesses, however, is that it is time consuming, and hence, costly [
The interview guide included different questions about the importance of food waste,
the interviewee’s interest in the prevention of food waste, an evaluation of food waste conceptual
frameworks, the interviewee’s knowledge about the current volume of food waste along the food
supply chain, the allocation of responsibilities for the volume of generated food waste, and the causes
of the generation of the volume of food waste along the food supply chain. The interview also included
questions about possible solutions to food waste, which were discussed at the end of the interview.
This part of the interview was beyond the scope of this paper and is therefore not included. The survey
focused on the situation in the metropolitan region of Barcelona. Due to the maturity of the food
waste phenomenon, we did not restrict the concept of food waste to a speciﬁc deﬁnition; instead, we
discussed it in a very broad sense (food waste was understood as food that had been thrown away).
It is worth noting that all the stakeholders participated in the identiﬁcation of the causes at different
stages of the supply chain regardless of their ﬁeld of activity.
The interviews were conducted from October 2014 to January 2015. They lasted from 45 to
100 min and were recorded and verbatim transcribed. Subsequently, the meaning of the texts was
examined through qualitative content analysis. This consisted of thoroughly analyzing the transcripts
of each participants to identify the themes and topics. This is an iterative process of analysis and
classiﬁcation and re-classiﬁcation into broader categories. The concepts are coded and classiﬁed
according to the discussion guide, tendencies, and observed patterns [
]. In our case, we analyzed
each interview, identifying the causes of food waste and the stakeholders’ perception about food waste.
After having an extensive list of causes from each participant, broader categories of causes arose,
and we followed the process of classiﬁcation multiple times until we had a complete map of the causes.
Thereafter, we classiﬁed
and summarized the causes following three criteria: (1) the level (micro, meso,
and macro); (2) the nature (technological, economic and business management, regulatory and policy,
and appreciation and enhancement); and (3) the stages of the food chain involved.
The main objective of the study, to map the causes of food waste, required us to capture the
diversity of perspectives rather than identifying the importance of each identiﬁed driver. Hence, having
as diverse a panel of stakeholders as possible was key. We used the intentional sampling technique,
which is commonly used in qualitative studies where experts’ judgments are necessary. It is a
non-probabilistic method in which the selection of the participants is based on subjective criterion
related to the aim of the study [
]. The value of each respondent is related to his/her particular
understanding of the phenomenon studied; not on his/her representativity. Therefore, more than
Sustainability 2018,10, 3730 6 of 19
the number of interviews, it was important that the sample represents all the perspectives about the
phenomenon. We used the snowball technique; individuals from initial interviews identiﬁed new
participants. The sampling was ﬁnished when the interviewees did not offer alternative answers in
explaining the phenomenon.
We obtained a ﬁnal sample of 24 key stakeholders from along the food supply chain and with
different proﬁles (see Table 2). The sample included a total of 4 representatives from the primary
production sector (a regional public body, a metropolitan body, a farmers’ organization, and an
ecologic farmers‘ cooperative), 2 members of the food industry (a representative from a food industry
association and a food industry group), 2 from the wholesale market (1 wholesale central market
body and a small wholesaler), 4 distribution participants (3 from supermarkets of different sizes and
1 local food markets organization), 2 from consumer associations, 2 from redistribution entities (a food
bank and a local food pantry), 1 from a social enterprise with a gleaning redistribution and a food
transformation model, 1 expert on food waste from the university, 1 environmental NGO, 1 from a
freegans organization, 3 representatives of regional public bodies (in food safety, waste management,
and consumption), and 1 from the municipality environmental department.
Table 2. Sample characteristics.
Food supply chain
Social Enterprise “rescue” food (managerial position)
Food safety regional body (managerial position)
Waste management regional body (managerial position)
Environmental municipality (technician position)
Regional consumption body (technician position)
Primary production metropolitan body (managerial position)
Agri-food regional body (managerial position)
Farmers’ organization (representative and farmer)
Farmers’ ecologic cooperative (managerial position and producer)
Industry association (food waste project manager)
Industry (environmental department technician position)
Wholesaler central market body (managerial position)
Small wholesaler (managerial position)
Retailer (Social Responsibility and Environment department position)
Retailer (institutional relationship department position)
Retailer (environmental department managerial position)
Local Markets body (managerial position)
Charity Food pantry (managerial position)
Charity Food Bank (project manager)
Local Popular dinning “freegans” (activist and member of the group)
Consumer association (managerial position)
Consumer association (managerial position)
Expert academia (waste and food waste researcher)
Environmental NGO (project managers and managerial position)
5. Results and Discussion
The in-depth interviews were analyzed through exhaustive content analysis to get insights into
the regional stakeholders’ perceptions on food waste, their knowledge about the volume of food waste,
their views regarding who is responsible for its generation, and their food waste conceptualization.
Furthermore, we collected all the potential causes of food waste that emerged during the interviews
using the HLPE framework (micro, meso, and macro) [
]. In the following section, we show the main
results and compare them with the ﬁndings in the previous literature.
5.1. Stakeholders’ Perceptions
The stakeholders showed interest in the problem of food waste despite the fact that it was
not a priority in their daily activities. Those involved directly in the food supply chain (food
Sustainability 2018,10, 3730 7 of 19
operators) prioritized their own business management, logistics, knowledge of consumer demand,
and modernization over food waste minimization. For the rest of the stakeholders—institutions,
consumers’ associations, and so forth—food waste was becoming relevant as a waste management
and food security issue. All the participants demonstrated an increasing interest in the food waste
phenomena during the last several years, especially due to the economic crisis and its visible impact
on society. It is worth mentioning that the impact of the Spanish economic crisis, which started in 2008,
was visible in society at the time of the interviews in 2015 (e.g., an unemployment rate of 22% and,
an AROPE rate of 28.6 [
]). The AROPE rate represents people at risk of poverty or social exclusion,
which is considered to be the case when they face at least three risks out of a battery of nine, such as
struggling to feed themselves adequately, being late on payments on their home, or being unable to
heat their homes in winter .
Despite their recognition of the great importance of the problem, we observed a generalized
lack of knowledge about the volume of food waste along the food supply chain. The participants
were reluctant to quantify the magnitude of the problem either in volume or as a percentage. On the
contrary, they were more open to discussing who was responsible for the volume of food waste.
The participants recognized that the responsibility could not be assigned to a single food supply chain
agent, but rather it should be distributed among all agents. In general, they attributed the responsibility
for the generated food waste in every stage to the main stakeholder in that stage. This was true in
all food supply stages except for at the farm level, where a shared responsibility among farmers,
retailers, and industry agents was associated with farm food waste volumes. Considering the entire
food value chain, farmers were seen as the least responsible for the volume of generated food waste.
Moreover, public institutions were also seen as having a certain responsibility for the volume of food
waste, although they are not directly involved with food handling. The key role of public bodies in
the matter of food waste was also identiﬁed in the Flash Eurobarometer 425, when asking consumers
about the role of different actors in preventing food waste [
]. The shared responsibility of the ﬁnding
is important and reinforces HLPE’s idea [
] of distinguishing between the stage where the volume of
food waste is found and the responsibilities associated with that volume.
It is important to note that we did not ﬁnd a single conceptual framework of food waste within
our panel of stakeholders. Many different words were used when referring to food waste and food loss,
including concepts such as surplus, wastage, byproducts, and so on. Despite the diversity of concepts
and perspectives, all of the stakeholders had in mind the same broad idea about what food waste
was in order to express their perceptions about the causes. The general understanding of food waste
was that it is food intended for human consumption that was not ultimately used for this purpose.
Finding different perspectives and vocabularies is common in the food waste debate, as the previous
literature has also shown [
]. This might be caused by multiple factors such as the novelty
of the topic and the coexistence of multiple perspectives. The food waste debate has emerged from
different ﬁelds—food security, waste management, and nutrition, among others—which involve, per
se, multiple conceptual approaches.
5.2. Causes of Food Waste
The interviews allowed us to identify an extensive map of causes of food waste in the metropolitan
region of Barcelona. Despite the novelty of the food waste debate to some of the stakeholders, they
demonstrated a great deal of knowledge of and ﬂuidity in explaining the dynamics in the regional
food system in the region that ultimately provoked the throwing away of food, no matter how they
named it. They explained multiple circumstances and behaviors that have been synthetized and
classiﬁed according to the conceptual framework explained in Section 2. We classiﬁed the causes
into three main groups, micro, meso, and macro causes. In the following sections, each group is
explained in more detail by subdividing the causes according to their nature (technological, economic
and business, regulatory and policy, and appreciation and enhancement) and the stage or stages of
the food supply chain in which the cause was identiﬁed to apply (farm, wholesaler market, industry,
Sustainability 2018,10, 3730 8 of 19
retail, or consumption). We observed the great interest of the stakeholders in food redistribution and
all the difﬁculties related to redistributing food not sold through marketing channels. Consequently,
we included an additional section to explain the issue of food redistribution below. We compare the
causes identiﬁed in our case study with the causes in previous studies. Each table identiﬁes whether
the cause from the metropolitan region has been found before by providing its reference.
5.2.1. Micro Causes
The stakeholders described different incidentals occurring at different stages that can be identiﬁed
as micro causes. Most of them were located downstream, at the wholesaler market, the food industry,
the retailers, and households. We classiﬁed the causes as technological, economic and business and
appreciation- and enhancement-oriented (see Table 3).
A set of technological-related causes were identiﬁed in different stages without any connection to
the higher-level dynamics. Most of them have been extensively described in the previous literature as
shown in Table 3. Technical inefﬁciencies during the processing and manipulation of food products
take place at different stages of the food chain. The interviewees highlighted that in the wholesale
market, the lack of a proper preservation and storage system could inﬂuence food waste generation.
This is a commonly mentioned cause of food waste in the literature [
]. A second cause
of food waste was related to logistics, mainly when food products have to be transported over long
distances. In such circumstances, the likelihood of unexpected situations and handling problems
that lead to food waste may increase, which was also cited in the work of Canali et al. [
]. In the food industry, the stakeholders identiﬁed food packaging as a key issue, referring
to either mistakes with the labeling or its poor quality. Packaging failures can result in withdrawal
of products that are unable to be sold or be consumed. Such failures were identiﬁed in the industry
during transportation and at the retail stage. These difﬁculties with packaging have been extensively
documented in the literature [
]. The improper use of food technology, mentioned
also in Buzby et al. [
] and Gustavsson et al. [
], was relevant to our stakeholders as well. The lack of
food waste prevention in manufacturing processes was also raised as an issue, that is, not reintroducing
to the manufacturing line, shrinkages and surpluses that may occur during the manufacturing of food.
Economic and Business Management
Concerning the commercial dynamics, the stakeholders pinpointed the drivers of food waste at
the food industry, retail, and household levels. The lack of sales planning, which is widely cited in
previous studies [
], was also identiﬁed as one of the main drivers of food waste at the
wholesale market and retail levels. The agents at these stages were acknowledged to have the tendency
to work on a daily basis. Moreover, possible mistakes when ordering products to be sold can create
food waste at the selling points. Within the industry, not using the best available techniques without
entailing excessive costs, was mentioned as a driver of the industry’s food waste.
At the retail level, the stakeholders differentiated between the dynamics of small stores and those
of supermarkets and hypermarkets. In small stores, the size of the business and the provisioning
system used (mainly purchases at the wholesale market) were singled out as possible drivers of food
waste. For instance, some interviewees explained a common practice among small store managers,
who buy products on promotion at the wholesaler—usually an offer with a very short perishability
timespan—which increases the likelihood of having the food spoil later on at the store. This is not the
case with supermarkets, in which the provisioning system is more systematized. However, the contact
with the client is less direct in supermarkets than in small stores, which creates speciﬁc difﬁculties
with relation to food waste. For instance, some stakeholders explained that supermarkets lack a good
mechanism for adapting a retailer’s supply to consumer demand patterns, which is a possible driver
of food waste. This is crucial to avoid disappointing sales expectations and to encourage the successful
Sustainability 2018,10, 3730 9 of 19
acceptance of a new product release or promotion, the failure of which could result in large quantities
of food waste in the store at a given moment. Moreover, in supermarkets, fresh food, especially fruits
and vegetables, are visible and accessible to consumers who sometimes incorrectly manipulate them.
This manipulation might result in damage to the fruits and vegetables, which must then be removed
Appreciation and Enhancement
A generalized lack of knowledge and awareness regarding food waste among the different actors
of the food supply chain was frequently pointed out during the interviews. On the commercial side of
the supply chain, the interviewees highlighted that business strategies are more focused on economic
proﬁts than on environmental or social considerations. Nevertheless, the issue of food waste is gaining
interest in the food sector, and this situation could potentially change in the near future through
corporate social responsibility actions. The interviewees noted a widespread lack of awareness about
the volume each actor generates in their own activity (from processors to households), which was
also pointed out by Parizeau et al. [
]. The stakeholders offered different arguments to explain such
circumstances. Some of them believed that waste management was not identiﬁed as a priority in
company strategies, and historically, it has been very difﬁcult to quantify it correctly. Others believed
that companies seem to be reluctant to work on waste reduction.
Consumers were also singled out for their lack of knowledge regarding food waste and
the poor management of food at home, which has been extensively covered in previous studies
). The interviewees underlined the existence of myths about food safety that inﬂuence
consumers’ management of food. They claimed that consumers simply throw away what they think it
is not good to eat. In this context, the lack of knowledge about expiration and best before dates was
the main reason for the generation of food waste in the household. Furthermore, the stakeholders
mentioned some incorrect purchasing habits (e.g., purchases oriented to promotions, shopping routines
and patterns, and bad purchasing planning) and cooking habits (e.g., cooking more quantity than
needed, damaging food while cooking, and the lack of knowledge on how to preserve food and
leftovers), together with a possible lack of interest in cooking properly as some of the more signiﬁcant
causes of food waste in the home.
Table 3. Micro causes of food waste.
F W I R C
– Insufﬁcient preservation systems [16,32–34,37]
– Problems with transportation and handling [22,50]
– Mistakes in labeling
– Difﬁculties re-introducing surpluses in the manufacturing line [6,85]
– Poor quality of packaging [22,32,34,37,41,45,50,84]
– Errors during purchasing within companies
– Lack of sales planning [6,22,32–34,50]
– Not using the best available techniques
– Lack of adaptability to the consumer demand pattern
– Response time and capability of selling food about to expire
– Failed sales expectations
– Negative response of clients to a new promotion
– Clients incorrectly manipulating food at the store
– Primacy of economic proﬁts
– Difﬁculties of quantifying food waste
– Waste management not being a priority in the business sector
– Companies’ daily dynamics making it difﬁcult to be aware of the inefﬁciencies
– Companies’ reluctance to work on waste reduction
– Lack of awareness of the volume of food waste 
– Lack of knowledge of consumers (food, date labeling)
– Poor management of food at home [16,22,32,33]
Note: F: farm; W: wholesaler market; I: industry; R: retail (supermarkets, small stores); and C: consumption. Causes
identiﬁed in previous literature are identiﬁed accordingly.
Sustainability 2018,10, 3730 10 of 19
5.2.2. Meso Causes
We identiﬁed different causes linked to certain norms and regulations, business management,
the forecast of agriculture, and lifestyle in general (see Table 4).
Food system infrastructures can have an important inﬂuence on other drivers that increase
the likelihood of food waste generation. The difﬁculties and inefﬁciencies of the cold supply chain
infrastructure were mentioned as issues in guaranteeing the preservation of food and food safety,
which might result in food waste. This was also found previously in [22,32–34,50].
Economic and Business Management
The interviewees mentioned several business practices in the supply chain that can generate
food waste in other stages. Most of these were related to retailers’ practices, affecting farmers
and wholesalers. One that was frequently mentioned was last minute cancellations, which is also
explained in the previous literature [
]. Another bad practice was the quality and commercial
requirements (not standards regulations) that retailers demand of farmers and the food industries.
This has been identiﬁed previously in other studies [
]. These excessive requirements also
inﬂuence food waste in other stages, such as the wholesale market, supermarkets, and small stores,
for example, clients not buying small fruits, because they are difﬁcult to manipulate, wash, peel,
etc. Moreover, some stakeholders mentioned a speciﬁc situation, which does not happen very often,
in which the response time of insurance companies in cases of truck accidents could also increase the
likelihood of food being wasted.
At the supermarket level, the interviewees highlighted that the tendency of retailers to keep as
much of a variety of products as possible until the very end of the day can be one important cause of
food waste in stores. Mena et al.  and HLPE  have explained this in their publications.
Although farmers around the metropolitan region of Barcelona are not the main food suppliers to
the region, primary production received great attention from our stakeholders. As in Canali et al. [
it seems that an important driver of food waste at the farm sector is the lack of agricultural production
planning. The stakeholders believed that farmers in the region have an individualist approach,
following the so-called “pendulum law”. Farmers decide what to cultivate next season depending on
the existing prices of the current one. Therefore, for different speciﬁc produce, scarce seasons with
high prices and low food waste are followed by seasons characterized by excess supply, lower prices,
and higher volumes of food waste.
Regional idiosyncrasies were also found to be a potential determinant of farms’ food waste.
There are no transformation alternatives in the metropolitan region in the case of production surpluses.
Some interviewees speciﬁed that it is hard to establish a transformation infrastructure and compete
with regions that are specialized in that. Moreover, they highlighted a clear lack of cooperation among
producers, which is also mentioned in HLPE, [
]. The individualism that characterizes farmers
in the metropolitan region of Barcelona makes it difﬁcult to come to agreements, organize farmers
within a farmer’s cooperative, and ﬁnd alternative marketing channels when traditional markets are
saturated. Furthermore, even in the case where some light cooperative behavior exists, farmers do
not strictly market their products through the cooperative. Some of the stakeholders hypothesized
that this can be incentivized somehow by the proximity to the big central wholesale market in
Barcelona, which constitutes an advantage and a disadvantage at the same time. The advantage is
that farmers can quickly respond to demand shocks at the wholesale market, attracted by higher price.
However, passing over the cooperative debilitates its structure and ability to ﬁnd alternatives in a
Sustainability 2018,10, 3730 11 of 19
Regulation and Policy
Speciﬁc standards and regulations were discussed during the interviews. The existence of
certain rules or standards among food operators on the quality or the aesthetics and sizes of
(e.g., EU No 543/2011)
—which, indeed, are widely described in previous studies [
]—induce food waste at different stages of the food supply. The interviewees also cited the
potential food waste occurring due to the expiration date norms. Apart from the speciﬁc regulations,
some conventions in the food industry generate large volumes of food waste according to our
stakeholders. They referred to the so-called “one-third rule”, which divides the product’s expiration
date (also applied to “best before” dates) into three parts. Each part is allocated to a stage: the industry,
the supermarket, and consumers’ households. Therefore, the ﬁrst third of the date notes the maximum
date that the product can be commercialized from the industry to other agents. The second third
of the date is the time the product can be kept on a supermarket’s shelves. Finally, the last third of
the expiry or best before date margin is the date until which the product can be kept in consumers’
households. This means that if a product is about to pass the ﬁrst third of its date in the industry, it will
be thrown away instead of being sold to a distributor, and the same will take place in the supermarkets.
Similar behaviors have been identiﬁed in Garrone et al.  and Quested et al. .
Appreciation and Enhancement
At the household level, the family structure was mentioned as one potential driver of food waste
generation (e.g., having kids or working hours), as described in Parﬁtt et al. [
] and Parizeau et al. [
The stakeholders also mentioned that the percentage of the family expenditure allocated to food
purchasing has decreased considerably over the last few years. Therefore, food expenditure is not so
relevant compared with other household expenses (in Spain, the percentage of family income allocated
to buy food and beverages decreased from 48.7% in 1964 to 14% in 2017 . and could be a possible
cause of household food waste, which has also been raised in Canali et al. [
] and Parﬁtt et al. [
Lifestyle was also identiﬁed during the interviews as a driver of food waste. Lifestyle is not a single
behavior, but rather a combination of habits and values that inﬂuences food waste generation .
Table 4. Meso causes of food waste.
F W I R C
T. – Difﬁculties of guaranteeing the cold chain [22,32–34,50]
– Lack of transformation alternatives in the case of farm surpluses
– No agricultural planning (“Pendulum law”) 
– No selling forecast and strategy
– Absence of cooperation of farmers 
– Last minute cancelations [33,50,84]
– Quality and commercial requirements [32,33]
– Response time of insurances
– Huge variety until the end of the day [22,34]
– Quality standards and regulations [28,37,41,50]
– Expiration date norms
– “One-third rule” [41,84]
– Cosmetic standards and requirements [16,50]
App. – Family structure [32,47]
– Percentage of the income invested in food [32,50]
Note: F: farm; W: wholesaler market; I: industry; R: retail (supermarkets, small stores); C: consumption;
T.: technological; Reg.: regulatory and policy; and App.: appreciation and enhancement. Causes identiﬁed
in previous literature are identiﬁed accordingly.
5.2.3. Macro Causes
We found quite a range of causes identiﬁed during the interviews that are classiﬁed as macro
causes. They are mostly economic- and business management-oriented drivers, although regulatory-
Sustainability 2018,10, 3730 12 of 19
and policy-related, and appreciation and enhancement drivers were also identiﬁed. All the actors of
the food supply chain were involved in these drivers. Yet, farmers and households, the two extremes,
were those who were mainly implicated in the macro causes we found (see Table 5).
Economic and Business Management
A recurring issue that emerged during the interviews was the supply–demand mismatch of fresh
food as a major determinant of food waste at different levels of the food supply chain. The stakeholders
noted the national overproduction of food, which was also identiﬁed in previous studies within other
geographical scopes [
]. The interviewees pointed out the tendency to oversupply food in a
highly competitive market. This results in the payment of lower prices to producers that often do
not even cover the costs of production. Thus, agricultural products are not harvested, a problem also
shown in [6,50,85].
Moreover, some of the stakeholders pointed out that production and marketing models could
also have a signiﬁcant inﬂuence on the volume and the type of food waste that is generated. At the
production stage, they suggested differentiating between two production models, the industrial
agricultural model and the organic production model. The former was seen as a generator of signiﬁcant
waste volume, whereas the latter faces other problems, such as pest control or the marketing of the
produce. As regards the marketing model, the structure and composition of the food supply chain
could beneﬁt or complicate the distribution of products that are about to expire. At the consumer stage,
some stakeholders highlighted the purchasing options of consumers as a possible driver of food waste.
They speciﬁed that, although consumers have lost purchasing options in some distribution models,
the availability of stores has increased, so it is easier to buy food products at any time.
We have already identiﬁed the lack of agricultural planning as a meso cause of food waste.
However, the interviewees mentioned the difﬁculties for farmers of forecasting their production due
to factors beyond their control, not only in the metropolitan region. Fresh perishable food production
is highly variable and depends on uncontrollable climate conditions—good climatic conditions could
lead to excess supply and food waste. Furthermore, it was pointed out that farmers operate in a global
market where geopolitics (e.g., Russian veto) and food safety crises (e.g., cucumber scandal) could also
have a huge impact on food waste.
Regulatory and Policy
Some stakeholders noted the inﬂuence that policy decisions could have on food waste generation.
This is also supported by the European Court of Auditors in their special report on “Combating
Food Waste: an opportunity for the EU to improve the resource-efﬁciency of the food supply chain” [
In particular, some interviewees expressed their concern regarding certain regulations that promote the
perfection of the external appearance and freshness of food. Consistent with previous studies [
the members of our panel speciﬁed that excessive quality, size, and aesthetic standards induce food
waste along the food supply chain. However, there was not a clear consensus about who is responsible
for ﬁxing such standards. Some referred to the ultimate and implicit consumer quality requirements,
others held retailers responsible, and others considered that there is a shared responsibility inﬂuenced
by the dynamics of the food system. Food safety standards and food labeling rules were also mentioned
during the interviews. The stakeholders pointed out that a possible excessive implementation of these
rules could lead to food waste generation. They also cited certain regulations not being clear and
leaving space for misinterpretations. Some examples provided were the expiration or selling dates
included in labels or the misinterpretations of animal byproduct ﬂexibility on the interpretation of its
categories (e.g., Regulation (EC) No 1069/2009).
Appreciation and Enhancement
The interviewees recurrently mentioned the importance of the knowledge and awareness of
different agents about food waste and its impact. They perceived a certain lack of knowledge about
Sustainability 2018,10, 3730 13 of 19
food waste as a potential resource to use, not only at the household level, but also along the whole
supply chain. Speciﬁcally, they highlighted the limited awareness of stakeholders about the economic
impact of food waste at the farm, wholesale, food industry, and retail levels. In relation to consumers,
some stakeholders pointed out the level of importance citizens attached to food and diet as a possible
driver of food waste. Parﬁtt et al. [
] and Stuart [
] have also described the role of food in consumer
life and how this can have an inﬂuence on multiple behaviors, including food waste. In relation to
valuing food, some stakeholders went one step further and linked the lack of social awareness and the
involvement of every citizen with societal problems as a potential predictor of food waste.
Table 5. Macro causes of food waste.
F W I R C
– National overproduction [6,37,41]
– Low prices that do not cover the costs [6,50,85]
– Difﬁculties planning agriculture (variability, global market, cancelations)
– Market competitiveness
– Production model of big volumes
– Food–supply–chain infrastructure
– Difﬁculties introducing a product about to expire into the market
– Consumer loss of buying options
– Consumers’ ability to buy food products at any time
– Generalized oversupply in the distribution.
– Legislation promotes perfectness and freshness
– Excessive application of food safety standards and food labeling
– Misinterpretations of regulations
– Quality, size, and aesthetic standards [16,41,50]
– Lack of knowledge that food waste is a resource
– No awareness of the economic impact of food waste
– No concern for the food value and the importance of diet and food [31,32]
– Lack of social awareness and implication of citizens
Note: F: farm; W: wholesaler market; I: industry; R: retail (supermarkets, small stores); C: consumption;
T.: technological; Reg.: regulatory and policy; and app.: Appreciation and enhancement. Causes identiﬁed
in previous literature are identiﬁed accordingly.
The stakeholders showed a great interest in pointing out all sorts of difﬁculties that farmers,
wholesalers, and supermarkets, as well as social entities, face when improving redistribution in
the metropolitan region. Although the issue of food redistribution, as an acceptable alternative to
food waste prevention and reduction, has been treated extensively in the literature [
no previous study has referred to such difﬁculties (see Table 6).
At the farm and wholesaler levels, the main obstacles raised during the interviews were related to
logistics (the cold storage infrastructure for perishable products and the time constraints to redistribute
surpluses). Social entities, which in turn, would be the main beneﬁciaries of redistribution, also have
some logistical problems related to their storage capacity (the lack of space in food pantries and
cooling systems). Collecting and transporting such big quantities of fresh produce from farms was
also mentioned, as well as the quality of the fresh produce donated by farmers and wholesalers.
Sometimes, donations of surplus produce need some manipulation and processing to sort food that
is adequate for human consumption from that which is not. This triage requires time and available
space, which is scarce in food pantries. In Catalonia, there is a funded program at the Barcelona Food
Bank to transform fruits into juices. However, it is difﬁcult for industries, at speciﬁc moments in time,
to absorb such big quantities of produce and transform it before it is spoiled. Some participants also
highlighted the difﬁculties of engaging farmers in food donation.
The interviewees identiﬁed some of the difﬁculties of redistributing food from retailers (either big
supermarkets or small stores) to social entities. First, there are logistical problems, as retailers might not
have enough space to allocate to food that cannot be sold but should be donated. They also highlighted
the difﬁculties caused by fresh produce and food sold loose (non-pre-packaged food), for instance,
guaranteeing cold meat traceability and the best before dates of batches. Workers of supermarkets
Sustainability 2018,10, 3730 14 of 19
were identiﬁed as key actors in the process of donation. Therefore, food safety precautions, poor
information, and the protocols of supermarket workers could hinder food donations.
Finally, some of the participants highlighted some problems that social entities (food pantries and
food banks) face with respect to receiving and redistributing food. The structure and composition
of social entities, heavily depending on volunteers, limit the collection of food from supermarkets.
Moreover, the collected food requires very fast redistribution to beneﬁciaries, which is not always
possible due to the food pantries’ service hours. The bureaucracy and regulations regarding food
donation were also highlighted as causes of food waste. Bureaucratic difﬁculties make it easier for
supermarkets to throw food away, rather than storing it, preparing the documentation, and donating
it. Moreover, some stakeholders pointed out that there are false myths regarding food donation that
create some perceived legal barriers that hinder donations from retail companies.
Table 6. Food redistribution difﬁculties.
F W I R C RR
– Farmers’ difﬁculties regarding logistical capacities
– Charities or social dinners’ difﬁculties in preserving fresh produce
– Lack of space and facilities for keeping the food or the redistribution of it
– Urgency to distribute in the case of farm surpluses
– Manipulation of the donated food is needed
– Difﬁculties and reluctance to implement or improve food donation processes
– Volunteers’ reliance on food charities
– Difﬁculties of food recovery transportation
Re. – Potential donors misunderstanding the regulations and bureaucracy
A. – Lack of interest in or knowledge of donations protocols
Note: F: farm; W: wholesaler market; I: industry; R: retail (supermarkets, small stores); C: consumption;
RR: redistribution; Te.: technological; Econ.: economic and business; Re.: regulatory and policy; and A.: appreciation
To achieve more sustainable food systems, it is crucial to better understand all the negative
externalities affecting such systems. Food waste is one of the key components of the current
unsustainability of food systems and further attention should be devoted to it. Despite the generalized
interest in preventing and reducing the current volumes of food waste, we believe that the partial
approaches employed to study the situation so far have possibly blurred global comprehension of the
nature of the problem. This paper has aimed to contribute to ﬁll this gap by undertaking a participatory,
holistic, and whole supply chain analysis of the causes of food waste generation in the metropolitan
region of Barcelona. We have carried out a qualitative assessment of the perception and the causes of
food waste. An extensive map of the causes of food waste in the region is provided by structuring
these, according to their level (micro, meso, macro) and their nature (technological, economic and
business management, regulatory and policy, and appreciation and enhancement). By comparing our
ﬁndings with previous literature, we identiﬁed common and speciﬁc causes of food waste.
We fulﬁlled the two main objectives of the paper. First, the relevant stakeholders’ perceptions and
the causes of food waste in the metropolitan region were identiﬁed and detailed. The stakeholders
in this study showed a great interest in food waste prevention. The social dimension of the problem
(the difﬁculties of access to food faced by some segments of the population) is a key factor for
the stakeholders. Therefore, food redistribution was a key issue during interviews. Moreover,
the farming level was focused upon substantially, despite the fact that the metropolitan region is
not a high-food-producing region. We have provided a detailed map of the causes of food waste at
different stages in the region. However, it should be noted that this is a qualitative study that was
focused on obtaining a wide picture of food waste drivers by considering a heterogeneous panel of key
stakeholders. Further research on the impact and the importance of each identiﬁed cause on the current
food waste volume should be conducted. Despite that fact, the set of the causes identiﬁed should be
Sustainability 2018,10, 3730 15 of 19
useful to policy bodies and agri-food operators in the region to work towards food waste prevention
and reduction. Each agent can better identify the domain they could have more inﬂuence on.
Secondly, this paper has differentiated between the circumstantial and structural causes of food
waste. The approach used in this study has allowed us to identify the complexity of the food waste
conundrum. Food waste drivers are spread throughout different stages of the food supply chain,
at different levels—micro, meso, and macro. We employed this distinction, in line with the HLPE [
to disentangle the circumstantial or structural nature of food waste generation. We believe that the
ways to approach and solve these two causes should be radically different. Incidental or circumstantial
causes can be addressed with stage-focused approaches. However, structural causes require holistic
approaches. Moreover, we classiﬁed each cause according to its nature (technological, economic and
business management, regulatory and policy, and appreciation and enhancement) which is useful
for both further research and policymakers to identify the domains to focus on, according to their
skills and/or domains of action. Additionally, alternative classiﬁcation of causes can be conducted,
the two approaches used here were useful to understand the food waste phenomenon in the region.
We recommend that future studies use them to disentangle the complexity of food waste.
The results from this study indicate that food waste is a structural problem, which is mainly
linked to the current structure of the food supply chain and not to particular and isolated inefﬁciencies.
Nevertheless, micro causes were also identiﬁed in relation to the existing inefﬁciencies of speciﬁc
processes at speciﬁc stages of the food supply chain. Hence, partial and focused measures and
approaches would be enough to solve theses. We encourage agri-food operators and policymakers
to address them. However, they should not forget the structural nature of the food waste problem.
We found that the meso and macro causes mentioned by the stakeholders were mainly related to the
food system dynamics and the existing interrelationships among the stakeholders in the food supply
chain. They cannot be understood with partial views, and whole-supply-chain measures are needed.
Overall, our results are in line with the partial results found in the literature. However, this study
provides a more global perspective. This holistic approach should be followed in future research in
order to corroborate our results in other geographical contexts.
Food waste is a complex issue affecting a large number of agents. Although food waste awareness
has signiﬁcantly increased during the last decade, the literature review undertaken in this study
indicated a lack of studies on food waste causes that utilize whole-supply-chain approaches. It is
true that in the area of consumer behavior, there is increasing research focused on understanding
consumers’ behavior and perceptions. However, consumers do not hold the ultimate responsibility for
food waste. Our research contributes to the literature by providing a regional stakeholders’ perspective
about food waste along the food supply chain.
Finally, this study shows that a regional scope is an adequate scale by which to analyze the
problem of food waste. We found speciﬁcations from the region that would not have been identiﬁed
with a broader geographical scope (e.g., national, European, worldwide). Most of the studies on food
waste published in peer-reviewed journals are located in the United States or the United Kingdom.
Replicating more regional studies would contribute to the international debate, and we would be able
to identify alternative policies more suited to the relevant territories and cultures.
Despite all the cautions that should be considered in interpreting the results of this study, we
consider that this paper offers an innovative approach to analyze the food waste problem. Moreover,
the ﬁndings could be of interest to both researchers and policymakers from the studied region and
Sustainability 2018,10, 3730 16 of 19
Conceptualization, R.D.-R. and M.C.-F.; Data curation, R.D.-R. and M.C.-F.;
Formal analysis, R.D.-R.; Methodology R.D.-R.; Supervision, M.C.-F. and J.M.G.; Validation, F.L.-i.-G.;
Writing—original draft, R.D.-R. and F.L.-i.-G.; Writing—review & editing, R.D.-R., M.C.-F., F.L.-i.-G. and J.M.G.
All four authors read and approved the ﬁnal paper.
This work was partially funded by the Waste Prevention Department of the Metropolitan Area of
Barcelona. Raquel Diaz-Ruiz was funded by the Pre-Doctoral teaching fellowship (FPU 13/06077) awarded by the
Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport.
We acknowledge all the stakeholders participating in the research for their time and their
Conﬂicts of Interest:
The authors declare no conﬂict of interest. The funders had no role in the design of the
study; in the collection, analyses, or interpretation of data; in the writing of the manuscript, or in the decision to
publish the results.
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