Study: America wastes $160 billion in food every year
Food label guides or initiatives like the removal of sell-by dates could help reduce food label confusion and alleviate the perceived tradeoff between food waste and foodborne illness.
Nearly 70% of respondents agree that throwing away food after the package date has passed reduces the odds of foodborne illness, according to a study produced by SQL Server Reporting Services, a server-based report generating software system from Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash.
About one-third of the world’s edible food is lost or wasted annually, while the challenge to feed the projected world population of 9.3 billion people by the mid-century will require 60% more food than is currently produced. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Washington, D.C., identified reducing food waste as an avenue to increase the availability of food, while the Obama administration announced in September of 2015 a first ever food waste reduction goal for the United States of 50% by 2030. While present in the entire post-harvest supply chain, food waste at the retail and consumer levels is particularly prevalent in the United States. In 2010, 133 billion pounds of edible food at the retail and consumer levels went uneaten (1,249 calories per person per day) with about two-thirds of this waste attributed to consumers. This represents not only a significant waste of resources, but also substantial negative environmental externalities, as 95% of food waste enters U.S. landfills.
Because so much food waste is attributable to consumers, it is critical to understand consumer awareness, perceptions, opinions and attitudes that could partly explain the high level of household food waste. However, no models of food waste awareness, perceptions, opinions and attitudes have been estimated for U.S. consumers. This analysis of patterns among respondents’ food waste attitudes yields a model with three principal components, one that represents—perceived practical benefits households may lose if food waste were reduced, the guilt associated with food waste and whether households feel they could be doing more to reduce food waste.
This survey shows that most U.S. consumers perceive actions that reduce food waste as pro-social and pro-environmental behaviors. Motivations for most pro-environmental behaviors include a mixture of self-interested (e.g., energy conservation-yielding cost savings) and pro-social (e.g., energy conservation-preserving resources for others and reducing pollution) motives.
The generation of food waste is a result of multiple behaviors that relate to different aspects of food purchasing, preparation, consumption and post-meal behaviors.
Sampling and implementation
The survey was administered by SSRS as part of a weekly national dual-frame telephone omnibus study conducted via computer-assisted interviewing. The sample is designed to be representative of the United States (including Hawaii and Alaska) and features a fully-replicated, stratified, single-stage, random-digit-dialing sample of landline telephone households and randomly generated cell phone numbers. About 3-4% of interviews were conducted in Spanish to facilitate proper representation of the Hispanic population.
· When asked “In the last 12 months, have you read, seen or heard anything about the amount of food that is wasted or about ways to reduce the amount of food that is wasted?” 53% answered yes. Of the remaining respondents, 39% responded ‘no,’ and 8% uncertain.
· More than two-thirds of respondents (69.7%) expressed agreement despite increased press coverage of scientific literature suggesting that label dates are not a good proxy for foodborne illness threats.
· About 59.3% agreed that some food waste is necessary to ensure meal freshness and quality, followed by 58.4% of respondents agreed that throwing away food is bad for the environment.
· Respondents are about equally split between agreeing and disagreeing with statements that food waste is exacerbated by bulk and sale purchases (52.9%) and that it would be difficult for their household to further reduce food waste (51.2%).
· A minority agrees that changing household food waste levels would induce significant changes in money or time costs, with 42.1% agreeing food waste is a major source of wasted money and 24.1% saying that they do not have enough time to worry about food waste. Only 13.6% agree that their households waste more food than other households of their size.
· A vast majority of respondents view their food waste as average or less than average, which suggests that few people identify current behavior as a deviation from social norms.
· Those identified as the “other” race (not white, not black, not Hispanic) are significantly more likely to feel what is dubbed food waste guilt, implying links between throwing away food and guilt, environmental degradation and wasted household money. Similar patterns are also found in agreement that more food is wasted when food is bought in bulk.
· For those who identify as “other race,” about half list ancestral affiliation with Asia, with most arriving from or having ancestors who arrived from developing countries where food or other resources may be scarce and social norms against wasting food or other resources may be stringent. Therefore, people from those countries may be more self-regulating and be more aware of the source of food waste. For example, Japan, South Korea and Singapore, which are among the few developed economies in Asia, have very strict waste recycling systems because of the scarcity of natural resources. Indeed, the South Korean government charges residents per unit of food waste created. Other developing countries, like China, may have strong cultural norms about saving food because of historical food shortages.
If the United States is to reach its goal of reducing food waste by 50% by the year 2030, U.S. consumers must be an integral part of any successful plan, either by directly altering their household food waste behaviors or by inducing other actors in the food supply chain to reduce food waste. This survey suggest that the first step to engaging U.S. consumers–generating awareness of food waste–has surpassed the 50% mark. It also suggests that increasing public concern about the environmental threat posed by wasted food may be an important early step.
Food label guides or initiatives like the removal of sell-by dates could help reduce food label confusion and alleviate the perceived tradeoff between food waste and foodborne illness. Such an information initiative could be especially effective among high-income households and females who waste food because of health concerns, but also strongly feel guilty about food waste.