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The Leading Voices in Food

E200: Learning which food waste reduction strategies people would actually do

Hosted by: Norbert Wilson (Duke), Brenna Ellison (Purdue)
March 29, 2023

The average American family of four loses roughly $1,500 annually, not eating the foods they purchased. This uneaten food, at best, ends up in a compost heap or goes to household pets, or worst, this wasted food ends up in the trash, a total loss. Of course, no one wants to waste food, but there is often a disconnect between what people know they should do, as opposed to what they would do. This podcast is part of a series on food waste. My colleagues, Agricultural Economist, Brenna Ellison of Purdue University, and Penn State’s Applied Economist, Linlin Fan, and I, asked people to tell us what food waste prevention measures they would support. And we asked which strategies they thought would work. The study was published recently in the “Journal of Cleaner Production.”

Brenna Ellison is an Associate Professor and Undergraduate Program Coordinator in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University. Dr. Ellison’s research focuses on how people make food choices, particularly how information and other environmental factors impact those choices.

Linlin Fan is an applied economist at Pennsylvania State University with interests in food policy and nutrition. The overall objective of her research is to understand how various food policies affect people’s food choice, health and welfare. The findings of her research provide important insights into current policy debate on food prices, food security and food waste.

Interview Summary

Norbert – Brenna, I’ll start with you. What are some common reasons that households waste food?

Brenna – Thanks for the question, Norbert. As we all know, because we’ve been working on this topic for quite some time together, there are lots of reasons why a household might waste food. Some of the big ones that we know contribute to household waste, are misunderstanding date labels. So Norbert, I know you’ve done some research separate on this, but if you’re a consumer in the grocery store you might see “used by,” “sell by,” “best by,” “best if used by.” Lots of different terminology, none of it particularly well regulated. Only baby formula has regulations on how date labels are used. So there is definitely misunderstanding on how to apply those date labels and if they are signaling something as unsafe to eat. We also know that households struggle with planning and food inventory management. So often, I am even guilty of this. I’m a very optimistic planner when it comes to cooking for the week. But the reality is, when it’s Wednesday and I’m tired and just want takeout, then you over optimistically planned your food. We also know that US households in particular, are sometimes guilty of over purchasing because they have a good host mentality. You always want more to less. You definitely don’t want the issue of running out. And then similar to misunderstanding date labels, there’s often concerns over food safety. And so, you know, when we think about people and their personal cost-benefit calculations, if there’s a concern that something might make you sick, you might prefer to throw that out rather than incur the cost of missing work or childcare or things like that. So those are just some of the reasons. Certainly there are plenty more but I think that’s probably a good starting point.

Norbert – Brenna, I really do appreciate this. I am the food safety person in my household. That is really my title. And there are just times when I have thrown things out because I just didn’t know. I wasn’t going to risk it. So I appreciate those comments and it seems like this is a challenge that all of us are facing. There are probably some ways that we can actually help manage this. So Linlin, I want to turn it to you now. In your view, how can we begin to reduce some of this food waste at the household level?

Linlin – There are some research showing there are ways to effectively reduce the food waste. For example, like Brenna just mentioned, we can streamline the date labeling terminology, and the industry have begun to take steps to address that. For example, the Consumers Brand Association, representing the major food manufacturers in the US, and Food Marketing Institute, representing food retailers, have begun to encourage their industry members to adopt “best if used by” for food quality, and “used by” for food safety. Another effective way to reduce food waste is larger-scale consumer education campaigns to inform consumers on issue of food waste, and also how to reduce their own food waste. Improve household planning behaviors around shopping, meal preparation, using a shopping list before you go, eat before you shop, these are all effective ways to help reduce food waste and better prepare for shopping. There are more opportunities offered for diversions, for example, composting. Those are several ways that could help with household food waste.

Norbert – Linlin, thank you so much for that. What I hear from you is this idea that there can be things at the macro level or at the governmental level, where we could change some things about how we regulate date labels. You said that industry is already doing some of this work, but there have been a couple of instances where Congress has introduced bills to actually regulate those labels for all products, not just for infant formula. There are things that we as individuals can do. So I’m really appreciative of you sharing the wide variety of ways that we can see a reduction in food waste, looking at the household, all the way up to actual federal law. Linlin, I want to continue on with you and ask you to share with our listeners more about our recent study on what food waste reduction efforts US consumers support? Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

Linlin – Sure. Our study assessed the public support for nine food waste solutions, including changes in food packaging, portion size, standardizing the data labeling system, selling imperfect produce in retail stores, making donations easier, using uneaten food to feed animals, implementing composting in communities, consumer education campaigns on food waste, and tax food waste. So we sent an online survey to a nationally representative sample of US respondents, and asked them about their support for, and perception of effectiveness, of each food waste solution I just mentioned. We found that making donations easier and the standardization of data labels, were the most supported food waste solutions.

Norbert – I must admit, I was really intrigued when we looked at the numbers. Very few people wanted to see taxes on food so I’m not surprised by that. It was interesting to see the things that they would be willing to accept as possible policy. Brenna, I’m intrigued because there was another part of this study. Will you tell us a little bit more about how support for a particular strategy relates to the belief that that strategy will work?

Brenna – So in general, we found pretty high levels of support for most food waste reduction options. To the tune that large majorities, with the exception of taxes, said that they might or definitely would support those policies. However, there is a bit of a gap when they say these same policies will be effective. If we look at just the most supporting and the people who believe the policies will be most effective, we’re talking in the range of like, 15 percent-ish difference. People are generally more willing to support a policy than they believe it will be effective. There is a bit of a gap. This isn’t too surprising if we look at practical examples we’ve already seen. Particularly as it relates to animal welfare, we see a lot of policies being passed where people want better animal welfare regulations, for, let’s say, chickens related to living space. But then, when it comes to practice and we have to buy more expensive eggs, people are less willing to do that. That is something that we saw when California passed their Animal Welfare regulations. At least from an academic perspective, we call this the vote-buy gap or the claim-action gap. In general, we want to support things like reducing food waste because we all know it’s undesirable. But in terms of our willingness to change behavior, that’s a little bit harder to shift.

Norbert – Thank you for that. I think it’s really important for us to appreciate this. I realize that we get really excited and we can be very passionate about certain causes. But when we actually have to do it, when we have to live that out, it’s sometimes hard. I know that’s true for all of us and so I’m grateful to hear that. I think it’s something that, as policymakers begin thinking about these issues, need to take that into consideration. I’m hopeful for what we can do further. That’s my question for both of you. As you watch the evolution of research on food waste, especially at the household level, take place, you know, what are some important questions that remain? What do we need to do more research on? Linlin, why don’t you start?

Linlin – Yes, sure. There are a lot of questions to be answered. This is still a active area of research. So first, how can we better measure food waste at the household level on a large scale? There are several models, but still people are trying to figure out a better, more accurate, and easier way to track the food waste at the household level on a large scale. Second, I’ve mentioned several ways to reduce the food waste, but what’s the most effective way to reduce food waste at the household level, and how does it vary with household circumstances and attributes? Those are all interesting questions for future research.

Norbert – Great. Brenna, what about you?

Brenna – Well, I definitely agree with the things that Linlin said, and I would just add the personal space that I’m increasingly interested in, is the intersection between food waste and nutrition. So we know that the US generally has a food waste problem, and we also have an obesity problem that are both linked to maybe having surplus or excess food. Yet when we think about them from a policy perspective, we don’t generally talk about them together. I think we need to spend a little bit more time thinking about the nutritional consequences associated with food waste, and how do we get people to kind of behave in a way that’s optimal to both nutrition outcomes as well as waste outcomes.

Norbert – I do believe that both of these topics are really ones that are important to us. I appreciate the challenge of trying to evaluate what actual food waste happens and trying to understand the interventions that are most effective, and particularly ones that don’t cost as much but also leads to the greatest outcome. And then Brenna, the work that you’re talking about, linking food waste and concerns around nutrition and wellbeing, are also really critical. So thank you both for all of those responses, and really, thank you for participating in this podcast.


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