2015-11 From the President: Food Waste. It is in our control.

Food Waste. It is in our control.

In the media we hear stories about the dilemma of food waste. Can it be possible that we consumers waste be­tween 30 and 50 percent of the food available to us? How can this happen? What can we as individuals do about it?

I have been studying food consumption and supply chains for a long time, and I am still amazed by the official statistics on food waste.* About one third of the some 430 billion pounds of edible food available in the U.s. is wasted at the retail and consumer end of the food supply chain. It is estimated that about two thirds of that loss is takes place at the consumer (household) level. That translates into about 90 billion pounds of food valued at $115 billion per year of wasted food.

The concern about food waste comes from several direc­tions: economic loss, environmental damage in land and water use, moral dilemma of wasted resources in general, and projections about how many people could have been fed with the food that was wasted.

How does this waste happen? First, there are some losses involving trimming meats and vegetables, shrinkage in cooking, feeding pets, or donating food to charity that are not truly wasted food. But, in the U.S. food is plentiful and relatively inexpensive. On average we spend less than five percent of our incomes on food at home, so throwing some food away is not a big economic loss to most individuals. Most of us buy too much as we stock up for a week or more. we do not like to shop for groceries very often. Increasingly, we buy fresh products, which are more perishable and subject to spoilage. At home, food molds in the refrigerator and turns rancid or develops bug infestations in the cupboard.

An important factor that has recently been recognized as contributing to household food waste is “date-labeling” on packaged foods. Once thought to be a good source of information for consumers, these labels have yielded some unintended consequences. Consumers often interpret all these date labels as a signal to discard food for safety reasons when in fact, “best if used by” dates are placed by the man­ufacturer simply to indicate when the food is past its highest quality. “Use by” labels are the signal to use or discard or, in some cases, freeze the food product by the stated date. “Sell by” dates, are dates after which the retailer will (should) remove the product from the shelf. About one third of the product’s shelf life remains after this date, and these prod­ucts are often sent to food banks or “soup kitchens.”

The message is that these date labels are confusing and may be counterproductive. Studies of consumers’ understanding of these labels find that only about 40 percent of consum­ers can correctly interpret the meaning of the labels. Many treat “use by” and “best if used by” as the same message leading many to toss out good, edible food. (Newsome, et al. 2014: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1541-4337.12086/full)

What can we do about food waste? First, just recognize how much we waste and educate our families and friends. Seniors whose diets demand less food are especially vulner­able because we have to adjust our shopping habits and our portion control in cooking and eating. Also, when we eat away from home we often cannot eat all the food we are served in a restaurant. Sharing meals and requesting those designer “doggie bags” help reduce waste.

As we exercise control over our food waste, we become better custodians of our diets, our environment, and our re­lationships with our fellow human beings. This is something we can do. It is in our control.

— Jean Kinsey, UMRA President

* technically, food that is truly wasted is a subset of food loss and the data quoted is based on food loss. But in the popular press all the data on food loss is referred to as “waste” and that is the term used here. (Buzby et al., 2014 http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/1282296/eib121.pdf)