Food waste is a widespread and increasingly urgent global problem. The Food and Agriculture Organisation estimate that as much as 1.3 billion tonnes, or approximately one-third of the food produced for human consumption, is lost or wasted annually. In developed countries, most food is wasted at the retail and consumption stages.
Cutting food waste starts in the home but surprisingly little is known about factors that influence food waste at the level of the household. Using a web-based survey, US researchers asked over 300 participants questions on their food purchasing, preparation, cold storage and disposal habits.
The survey also asked about a variety of factors that may have influenced decisions to throw out food, including use-by dates, odour, the appearance of food and cost.
Specifically, questions about the fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy people were expecting to eat over the coming week were asked. A week later, a follow-up interview was made on how much of the food was actually eaten.
Showing that the mind is bigger than the stomach, participants in the study expected that they would eat 97 percent of the meat in their refrigerators, but only about half was eaten. It was a similar case for vegetables where the expectation was that 94 percent of them would be eaten, but instead, just 44 percent were consumed. For fruit and dairy, the estimates for how much would be eaten sat at 71 and 84 respectively, but again, just over 40 percent were actually eaten.
What was driving all this food waste? Concerns about food safety was a big one which was based on odour, appearance and use-by dates. Younger households were more likely to waste food while at the opposite end of the spectrum, households of those 65 years and older ate most of what they purchased.
On the plus side, people who were avid readers of nutrition labels were less likely to waste food. This could be because they were more engaged in the food purchasing decision and were less likely to waste what they bought.
The refrigerator has been described as the place where ’good intentions go to die,’ mostly because many perishable foods such as vegetables are usually healthier choices. Understanding which consumer habits are linked to food wastage can help with education campaigns about having a more realistic threshold for food safety.