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Denmark Might Be Winning The Global Race To Prevent Food Waste

Claus Holm, a Danish celebrity chef, demonstrates at a festival on the Danish island of Fyn how expired products lurking at the back of the fridge can still be delicious. Sidsel Overgaard for NPR hide caption

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Sidsel Overgaard for NPR

Claus Holm, a Danish celebrity chef, demonstrates at a festival on the Danish island of Fyn how expired products lurking at the back of the fridge can still be delicious.

Sidsel Overgaard for NPR

At a festival on the Danish island of Fyn, Claus Holm, a fast-talking Danish celebrity chef, is sniffing and mixing into a pot of stew an ingredient he calls "totally forbidden." It's cream, and it expires today.

Danes' increasing willingness to buy and consume items like just-expired dairy products has helped make them, arguably, the world champions in the fight against food waste. According to a recent report from the Danish government, Danes now throw away 25 percent less food than they did five years ago.

Holm is one of many people who have been working to make that so, and it's why he's here today: to prove that expired products lurking at the back of the fridge can still be delicious. For two hours, he works his way through kitchen carts piled with a messy array of stickered-up products: bruised basil, tired baguettes, squishy tomatoes and huge hunks of slightly graying meat.

A few years ago this might have been radical performance art. Today, his audience smiles appreciatively, but doesn't seem to need much convincing. Danes today throw out 104 pounds of food per year on average compared to an estimated 273 pounds per person per year in the U.S.

If Holm is an ambassador in Denmark's anti-waste movement, then the queen has to be Selina Juul, a peppy 35-year-old who emigrated from Russia as a teen.

In 2008, after years of dismay at the amount of food she saw landing in Danish trash cans, Juul started the organization Stop Wasting Food.

Farmers and retailers often get the brunt of the criticism when it comes to food waste, but Juul decided to start at the other end.

"I thought, 'Who can we move? Well, we can move the people.' So we started focusing on the people," she says.

Juul created a Facebook group and two weeks later started appearing in the national media, where she has been a regular figure ever since.

It was an efficient strategy, given that individual consumers are responsible for 36 percent of food waste in this country, compared to retailers (23 percent), the food processors (19 percent) and primary producers (14 percent), according to figures from the Ministry of the Environment and Food.

A customer browses a display of fresh fruit for sale outside a Netto store, operated by Danske Supermarked, in Copenhagen, Denmark. The company says Danish consumers have helped push it to cut back on food waste even more. /Freya Ingrid Morales/Bloomberg/Getty Images hide caption

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/Freya Ingrid Morales/Bloomberg/Getty Images

A customer browses a display of fresh fruit for sale outside a Netto store, operated by Danske Supermarked, in Copenhagen, Denmark. The company says Danish consumers have helped push it to cut back on food waste even more.

/Freya Ingrid Morales/Bloomberg/Getty Images

But Juul says her seven-year effort to poke and prod consumers is starting to trickle up the food chain.

"Now, because it's become a trend of not wasting food, the companies and the food producers and retailers are starting to act as well," she says. "Compared to other countries, Denmark, at the moment, has the most supermarkets doing something to reduce food waste."

Maia Lindstrøm Sejersen, a spokeswoman with Dansk Supermarked, Denmark's largest retailer with four chains and an online store, would counter that the company's supermarkets have always been careful about waste.

"It's just good business," she says. "Any grocer would rather sell something than throw it away."

She says Dansk Supermarked's chains have sold food near expiration at reduced prices for decades. But while buying these items might once have been considered a sign of poverty for consumers, it's now a badge of pride. And the company has responded by piling reduced price goods in dedicated areas, marked with special signage.

But, she admits, the recent movement to prevent food waste has pushed grocery stores to improve further, particularly in one area.

"Fruits and vegetables have always been tricky because they have to look lovely and fresh," she says. "Sometimes maybe we've been too quick to say 'this needs to go.' But now that people are so focused on food waste, we can, for example, take the outer, [wilted] leaves off a head of lettuce and sell it at a reduced price."

And, she says, even more than consumer pressure, what's going to make the biggest difference in reducing retailer waste is technology that enables better tracking from farm to fork. She points to SAP, a new IT system her company has had in place for just under a year. It's already helped one of her company's chains pinpoint bread as one of the most wasted items. With that knowledge, stores are now ordering less and have dedicated more space to selling older bread at a discount, all of which has reduced bread waste by 60 percent.

Meanwhile, Juul and her army of volunteers say there's still plenty of opportunity for consumers to reduce food waste even more. For example, a Stop Wasting Food survey released just this week suggests that half of all Danes have been shoving leftovers to the back of the freezer — and tossing them out a year later.

"This new number is showing that we're postponing our food waste," says Juul. "We're just pushing it into the future."