Why you should be crying over spilt milk
One of the biggest trends I’ve observed this past year is upcycling. Thanks to significant media attention over the past few years, food waste has become a top-of-mind issue for consumers, and as food and beverage companies focus on addressing unavoidable waste, a new category of food has emerged—upcycled food (as I discussed in my last column).
Not only is this trend creating new and innovative products, but also generating new partnerships across the industry to move our linear “take-make-dispose” food system into a circular one.
Abokichi is one such company that has made upcycling a core pillar of their product innovation strategy. The company launched with a line of Japanese-inspired condiments and are now selling upcycled instant miso soups that use by-products from Saki manufacturing. Co-owners Fumi Tsukamoto, Jess Mantell and Bobby Khorasani recently graduated our R-Purpose Micro accelerator program, in partnership with Sobeys, and I took a moment to talk all things waste with them.
“For us, upcycling just makes sense”, explained Tsukamoto. “We’re a food company, and so we need to be thinking about waste. It’s just that simple. When you think about all the resources that go into producing food—the water, the land, the energy, labour and capital—when food gets wasted, so do all those resources.”
Tsukamoto hails from Japan, a country that thinks about waste in a very different, and arguably much more sophisticated, way than we do here in Canada.
“When I was a kid”, she continues, “my mom always told me to not leave anything on my plate. Either a creature had died to provide the food I was eating, or the farmers had worked hard to grow that food, and she would repeat to me that to waste it was wrong and disrespectful.”
“We have the word Mottainai in Japanese, which literally means ‘what a waste!’. If someone wastes food, even by accident, we will cry ‘Mottainai!’ It’s just a sign of how much we value the gifts of nature and the hard work of others. So yes, in Japan we really do cry over spilt milk!”
Despite the compelling story of building a food company from food waste, Tsukamoto and Khorasani are quick to point out there are significant challenges in this new approach to making food, as it relates to finding the right partners and creating awareness with consumers on the benefits of upcycled products.
“It seemed weird to me at first how little people know about upcycling. This is really an important piece of the puzzle and it’s just not there yet. Being able to label our product adds legitimacy and makes it simple for consumers. So, part of our vision is to create an Upcycled Food Association in Canada,” she said.
While consumers are driving much of the demand for upcycling, there is real potential in the B2B marketplace. As Khorasani explains: “A big part of making upcycling work is having consistent availability of ingredients and then investing the time in understanding how to upcycle those ingredients.”
Indeed, it is the technical issues around upcycling that often create the barriers for food and beverage companies. Understanding how to take a by-product and transform it into a commercialized ingredient requires a series of skills and resources that cover nutrition, economics, supply chain and logistics, and that do not exist in one place in most companies.
For example, adding an energy-intensive process or more transportation to move a by-product from one facility to the next for further processing can impact both the economic and environmental business case. Measuring and tracking the environmental key performance indicators (KPIs) becomes a critical part of success.
I talked in my last column about the RePURPOSE Network, a new one-stop-shop for upcycling that we are launching in the next few weeks. Listening to the challenges faced by Tsukamoto, Mantell and Khorasani really brought it home how important it will be for all those skillsets and resources to be available in one place, along with the environmental, social and economic measurement and tracking.
I want to provide F&B companies a pathway to product commercialization for their unavoidable food waste and support upcycling startups, as they seek to procure ingredients for their products.
Visionary entrepreneurs like Tsukamoto, Mantell and Khorasani from Abokichi are showing what is possible when you put waste prevention at the heart your food business. They are showing us all how important it is to cry over wasted opportunities. Mottainai!
Cher Mereweather, CEO of Provision Coalition Inc., is a food industry sustainability expert based in Canada.
This article was originally published in the May 2021 issue of Food in Canada.