Researchers at Ohio State University say food waste is a serious problem in America. Yet nearly half of the people they recently surveyed don’t think they contribute to food waste, and many believe they’re doing the right thing by throwing food away.
In their study, the OSU researchers said Americans waste 80 billion pounds of food a year.
“Statistics suggest about 30 to 35 percent of food in the United States is wasted and very similar figures for around the world,” says Ohio State University professor of Agricultural Economics Brian Roe, who conducted the study.
Roe says that translates to about 1250 calories per person per day.
Wasted food, Roe says, could fill the Rose Bowl, a football stadium in Southern California, every single day. He says people throw food away for a variety of reasons.
“Food can be wasted going all the way from the farm to the household. In households a lot of times people are wasting because they lose confidence in the food because the ‘use by date’ or the date on the label is passed. Or children have plate waste perhaps particularly if children do not like a particular food and it has to be tossed,” Roe explained.
Roe says “sell-by” or “use-by” dates have little to do with food safety, but rather indicate the peak period for freshness and taste.
“For example. In our survey, well over 70 percent say throwing food away after the label date has passed would help reduce the probability of a food-borne illness when the data doesn’t truly support that because those dates are more about quality, and kind of smell, and taste, than they are about safety” said Roe.
Earlier this year, Congress passed legislation to create a national standard for dates on food labels.
Roe said the goal was to clarify when a product might lose freshness or taste, as opposed to when it should be thrown out.
“I think that this is an easy thing for people to rally around. In fact, we saw that even in this divided Congress, the food label date legislation was passed with bi-partisan support,” Roe said.
Clearing up the food labeling confusion, Roe said, should reduce food waste. He said that will help food producers and manufacturers, along with consumers looking to save money.
Roe says it will also reduce the environmental impact of wasted food rotting in landfills, which can send methane into the air and water supplies.
“Three, it helps improve food security because there’s just more food available for the marketplace which should push prices down a bit and help people afford the food,” Roe explained.
But he said lower prices could be somewhat of a "Catch 22," because people might once again get complacent with cheap food.
Study co-author Danyi Qi says in countries like France, it’s against the law for supermarkets to throw out food because it has passed its prime or is imperfect.
Misshapen or what she calls "ugly fruit" is sent to discount supermarkets and at a lower cost.
“They sell ugly fruit, those non-perfect food to the low income, to the customers with a high discount rate,” Qi said.
Qi said just over half of the people in the survey think throwing away edible food in America is a problem.
“Nearly 70 percent of them feel guilty about wasting food. But still only half of them know food waste is bad for the environment,” Qi explained.
Roe and Qi are working on securing money to develop a smart phone app that will help people track how much food they waste.
Roe said Ohio State plans to host a national webinar and forum August 26th to discuss strategies to increase awareness and reduce food waste in local communities.