Food waste is a widespread and increasingly pressing global problem. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that up to 1.3 billion tons are lost or wasted each year, or about one-third of the food produced for human consumption. In developed countries, most food is spent at the stages of retail and consumption.
Reducing food waste begins at home, but surprisingly little is known about the factors that affect food waste at the household level. Using a web-based survey, U.S. researchers asked more than 300 participants questions about their habits of buying food, cooking, refrigerating and disposing of it.
The survey also asked about a variety of factors that could influence food disposal decisions, including shelf life, odor, food appearance and price.
In particular, questions were asked about fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy products that people expected to eat for the coming week. A week later there was an additional interview about how much food was actually eaten.
Showing that the mind is bigger than the stomach, study participants expected they would eat 97 percent of the meat in their refrigerator, but only about half was eaten. A similar case was with vegetables, where 94 percent of them were expected to be eaten, but instead consumed only 44 percent. As for fruit and dairy products, the estimate of how much will be eaten was 71 and 84 respectively, but again, it was actually eaten a little over 40 percent.
What drove all this food waste? Concerns about food security was large, based on odor, appearance and expiration dates. Younger families are more likely to spend food, while at the opposite end of the spectrum families 65 and older ate most of what they bought.
On the other hand, people who diligently read food labels were less likely to waste food. This could be because they were more active in deciding to buy food and were less likely to spend what they bought.
The refrigerator has been described as a place where “good intentions die”, mainly because many perishable foods, such as vegetables, are usually healthier choices. Understanding what consumer habits are associated with food loss can help educational campaigns about having a more realistic food safety threshold.
For reference: Davenport M et al. Nutritional Procedures, Product Characteristics, and Household Food Waste in the United States: A Pilot Study Based on Refrigerators. Resources, Conservation and Recycling 2019; 150: 104,440