COLUMBUS, Ohio — The refrigerator is an integral part of the quintessential American home, and many people make it a priority to keep their fridge stocked with food. Normally there’s nothing wrong with picking up an extra carton of eggs at the market, but according to a new study, many Americans are buying and storing food that they are only going to end up throwing out.
Researchers from Ohio State and Louisiana State University say Americans are wasting a significant portion of perfectly edible food, and are pointing to a lack of understanding when it comes to date labels on food packaging as a big reason why.
“People eat a lot less of their refrigerated food than they expect to, and they’re likely throwing out perfectly good food because they misunderstand labels,” explains senior author Brian Roe, a professor at Ohio State, in a press release.
Roe’s study is the first ever to take a data-driven approach to understanding the American refrigerator, and he believes its findings provide a clear path for how to significantly cut back on unnecessary food waste.
Researchers surveyed 307 participants on their usual fridge cleaning or stocking habits, as well as the types of food they usually store in their fridge. Then, 169 of those participants were followed up on with an additional survey. More specifically, researchers asked about fruits, meat, dairy, and vegetables; how much of each food type was usually stored in their fridge, and how much they expected to eat. A week later, researchers followed up with certain participants to see if their fridge predictions were accurate.
Participants were also asked about what factors or qualities sway their decisions to throw out food — such as smell, date labels, cost, and overall appearance.
The results clearly indicate a discrepancy between what Americans expect to eat, and what they end up throwing out; participants expected to eat 97% of the meat stored in their refrigerators, but only ended up eating about 50%. They expected to eat 94% of their vegetables, but only ate 44%, and expected to eat 71% of their fruit but only ate 40%. As far as dairy products, survey participants believed they would eat 84%, but merely finished 42%.
Food safety concerns, including worries about a food’s appearance, odor, or dates on the labels, were the top reasons cited by participants at to why they threw so much food out.
“No one knows what ‘use by’ and ‘best by‘ labels mean and people think they are a safety indicator when they are generally a quality indicator,” Roe comments. Roe would go on to advocate for a proposal currently being presented to Congress that would institute date labeling rules on food products intended to add some clarity. Under the proposed guidelines, “best if used by” would more clearly convey that the food isn’t necessarily going be harmful or inedible past that date, but the owner should use their best judgment. Meanwhile, “use by” would clearly state “do not eat this food past this date.”
The survey also found that people who clean their fridge more often end up wasting more food, while people who make a habit of checking nutrition labels waste less food. Researchers theorize that more nutrition-minded consumers are more engaged with their food, which is why they are less likely to throw it out. Regarding age, younger participants and households were found to be more inclined to throw out perfectly fine food, while individuals 65+ years old were less likely to waste food.
The study’s authors note that food waste on a home-to-home basis is especially hard to analyze, and ultimately change, because it occurs as part of a longer chain of events or series of behaviors.
“There’s the purchasing of food, the management of food within the home and the disposal, and these household routines ultimately increase or decrease waste. We wanted to better understand those relationships, and how individual products – including their labels – affect the amount of food waste in a home,” comments study leader and graduate student Megan Davenport.
Surprisingly, close to half (43%) of all food waste can be linked back to personal households, as opposed to restaurants or grocery markets. With this in mind, researchers believe that if Americans can change their food storage habits, it can make a significant difference towards solving the problem.
“We wanted to understand how people are using the refrigerator and if it is a destination where half-eaten food goes to die,” Roe says. “That’s especially important because much of the advice that consumers hear regarding food waste is to refrigerate (and eat) leftovers, and to ‘shop’ the refrigerator first before ordering out or heading to the store.”
An estimated 1.3 billion tons of food produced for human consumption is wasted each year, according to the United Nations.
Moving forward, researchers say that all food date labels should be standardized and leave no room for misinterpretation. They also recommend educational campaigns aimed at helping consumers recognize the signs of spoiled food.
The study is published in Resources, Conservation & Recycling.