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In response to those who decry wastefulness, convenience stores are stepping up efforts to cut down on the disposal of unsold “bento” boxed lunches, which usually have a shelf life of only a few hours.

Boxed lunches are bread-and-butter goods for many stores, which have made a lot of money by offering a wide array of bento at any time of day.

However, they have been facing complaints about having to discard unsold boxed meals after their expiration. Also, some bento are trashed before their expiration when they are pulled from shelves to make room for fresher food shipments.

In late June, Seven-Eleven Japan Co., the biggest convenience store chain in the country, began increasing staff checks on the freshness of its food, including bento and “onigiri” rice balls, to nine times daily.

Many convenience stores will remove bento from shelves around two hours before their expiry, taking into account that buyers would require a certain amount of travel time to get to where they would eat the meals.

Seven-Eleven previously inspected the freshness of bento simultaneously with the delivery of goods three times a day. But because every delivery had goods with a variety of use-by dates, it removed even those boxed lunches that hadn’t yet run out of time along with items prepared earlier, when restocking shelves.

By checking freshness levels every two or three hours, Seven-Eleven can uniformly remove bento from the shelves two hours before their consumption deadline.

“It takes time and effort (to check meals nine times a day), but it leads to an increase in sales and a reduction in (food) we throw out,” said Hiroshi Saito, manager of a Seven-Eleven store in front of the Kojimachi subway station in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.

He added that his store was able to reduce the number of boxed lunches it threw away by some 10 percent.

Industry analysts said rivals are watching Seven-Eleven’s efforts. Because an increase in checks could lead to a rise in costs, other firms may follow suit if Seven-Eleven’s inspection boost proves successful.

The convenience store chain am/pm Japan Co. is taking a different approach to reducing the number of unsold bento it must discard, offering customers “fresh kitchen” frozen bento.

The chain boasts that its food contains no preservatives.

It is also striving to improve inventory-order accuracy, for example by anticipating which bento may sell well by collecting information on local events and the weather. It uses its database to avoid stocking unnecessary foods.

Some convenience store chains have contracted with fertilizer manufacturers that can make use of rice from unsold food items.

Circle K Sunkus Co. collects unsold bento, side dishes and bread from its stores in Nagoya to make compost. With the cooperation of local agricultural cooperatives, farmers use the compost to grow onions.

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