To reduce food waste, changes in date labeling, marketing and consumer behavior are needed

September 2, 2020

A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) identifies promising strategies for reducing consumer food waste nationwide, including a national campaign to change consumer behavior, federal standardization of food date labeling, and changes to retailer marketing and food service practices, among other measures.

Approximately 30% of food produced in the United States is wasted each year, and a significant portion of that waste occurs at the consumer level. Food waste accounts for 15% of all solid waste in the U.S. and contributes significantly to carbon dioxide emissions.

A National Strategy to Reduce Food Waste at the Consumer Level says that food waste is driven not just by an individual’s food choices, but also by a system that leads consumers toward choices that result in wasted food. The report identifies 11 drivers of consumer food waste, including marketing practices that shape consumer behavior, government policies and regulations, and competing demands on consumers’ time and attention.

“When you buy a pint of strawberries at the grocery store, you never do so intending to waste them. But factors such as this being your only trip to the store this week, or a two-for-one sale, can lead you to buy more strawberries than you actually want and waste what you don’t finish,” said Barbara O. Schneeman, PhD, chair of the committee that wrote the report and professor emerita of the University of California, Davis. “Our report’s recommendations focus on getting all the actors in our food system to coordinate their actions and give consumers a different set of choices that help waste less food.”

Dr. Christopher M. Shea

Dr. Christopher M. Shea

“Taking a systems perspective on wasted food is useful, because there are various settings in which food is wasted or in which decisions are made that contribute to food being wasted at a later point in time. As a result, the individual consumer is not the only important stakeholder,” adds Christopher M. Shea, PhD, an associate professor of health policy and management at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health who served as an implementation expert on the report. “Making this situation even more complex is the fact that empirical evidence on effective interventions for reducing wasted food is limited. The range of stakeholders, including organizations like grocery stores and restaurants as well as other groups, which likely do not have structures in place for coordinating efforts to reduce wasted food, makes coordination difficult. We also face the challenge of modifying promising interventions to fit local needs and conditions, which might include barriers at the community, organization or household level — accounting for these all factors is no easy task.”

Changing the Food Environment

According to the report, manufacturers, retailers, restaurants and other food service venues should develop promotions and in-store cues that prioritize buying the right amount and variety of products — frozen, shelf-stable and perishable — and change how they present food and communicate with customers to reduce food waste. For example, stores can consider providing smaller carts or baskets to reduce overbuying; cafeterias can remove trays so consumers select less food; and restaurants can offer smaller portions and redesign buffets to discourage waste. Trade associations, alliances and nonprofits all play an essential role in coordinating industry efforts to change the food environment, and should create a forum to implement change and innovation.

The report also recommends that industry members, consumers and nonprofits all advocate for federal legislation to standardize date labeling on packaged food. While most date labels convey the manufacturer’s best guess at how long a product will remain at peak quality, studies have shown consumers often mistake date labels for expiration or safety dates, and therefore discard food that is still safe to eat. Only preemptive action at the federal level could override state laws and allow businesses to remove date labels from some products. The report also reccomends that state and local governments institute policies to reduce food waste, such as charging garbage fees based on the amount of waste a household produces.

Supporting Consumer Behavior Change

The report says the Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiative, — an interagency effort to improve coordination on food waste between the U.S Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency — should be expanded to become the go-to place for sharing information on food waste interventions.

The initiative also should create a national behavior change campaign, the report states, which would inform the public about the environmental, economic and social benefits of reducing food waste and provide easy, everyday tips in support of that goal. This campaign should focus on reaching consumers during “teachable moments,” when they are most likely to form and keep new habits. The current disruptions to our food system as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which many Americans have had to change their grocery shopping and restaurant habits, are potentially one such teachable moment.

The report specifically calls on professional organizations to work with food influencers, including social media personalities and cooking show hosts, to promote food literacy and waste reduction on their platforms. Nongovernmental organizations and government agencies are encouraged to provide K-12 schools and colleges with tools to help students learn about the impact of food waste.

Applying Research and Technology

The report says any promising approaches to reducing food waste will need to be further evaluated as they are implemented in different settings and populations — and this evaluation should be a priority for future food waste research. Developments such as new packaging that extends shelf-life, or apps and devices that help consumers track their food waste, are potential research subjects.

The original version of this story was published on the NASEM website.


Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomms@unc.edu.

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