Cut Down on Food Waste, Start at Home
A new survey on household food waste in the US shows that more than 68% of Americans had thrown away food because it was past the expiration date and the believe that eating it could cause food poisoning.
This is a major misconception, as although it’s possible to become ill from eating spoiled food, it is a different issue entirely from foodborne illness spread by contaminated food, which can make on sick even if it is fresh.
In many cases, expiration dates are not a measure of food safety at all, and the widespread misconceptions about their meaning are adding to the alarming amount of food wasted in the US each year.
According to Ohio State University researchers, about 33% of the edible food in the world is lost or wasted every year, while many suffer without enough to eat.
In the US, in September 2015 federal officials announced a goal to reduce food wast by 50% by Y 2030.
Waste is present at all stages of the food supply chain, however in the US waste at the retail and consumer levels is known to be especially prevalent.
The researchers noted that 133-B pounds of food were wasted at the retail and consumer levels in Y 2010, with 67% of it attributed to consumers.
When broken down, this would amount to 1,249 calories per person/day.
Further, the environmental repercussions of such waste are steep, as 95% of food waste ends up in US landfills.
Considering the large amount of food being wasted by consumers, the researchers conducted a survey to help understand public perceptions and attitudes regarding same, the results are revealing.
The national survey of 500 US residents revealed that only 53% were aware that food waste is an issue, which study co-author Brian Roe, the McCormick professor of agricultural marketing and policy at Ohio State University called “amazingly low.”
Further, many believed there were practical benefits to throwing away food. Study co-author and doctoral student Danyi Qi, said in a news release: “Generally, we found that people consider three things regarding food waste … They perceive there are practical benefits, such as a reduced risk of foodborne illness, but at the same time they feel guilty about wasting food. They also know that their behaviors and how they manage their household influences how much food they waste.”
Other US attitudes about food waste were also revealed, including:
- 68% believe throwing away food after the expiration date has passed reduces the risk of foodborne illness
- 59% believe some food waste is necessary to be sure meals are fresh and flavorful
- 77% feel guilt when throwing away food
- 58% understand throwing away food is bad for the environment
- 42% believe wasted food is a major source of wasted money
- 51% believe it would be difficult to reduce household food waste
- 42% say they do nothave enough time to worry about food waste
- 53% say they waste more food when they buy in bulk or purchase large quantities during sales
- 87% believe they waste less food than similar households
Chief among them is the notion that doing so cuts down on foodborne illness. More than 20 US states require dating of some foods, but such labels vary significantly in different areas of the country.Many of the perceived benefits of throwing away food are not real.
With the exception of infant formula, there is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the US, nor is there any federal requirement for food dates.
Food may be labeled with “open dating,” which refers to use of a calendar date, or “closed” or “coded” dating, which refers to dates that are written in code for use by the manufacturer.
The latter may be used for shelf-stable products i.e. cans, boxes, plastics or other pre-packaged foods, while open dating is typically found on perishable foods including meat, eggs and dairy products.
There are other food-dating labels that you may see as well, and while many regard them as interchangeable, each actually has it’s own unique meaning, as follows:
- Sell by dates are not meant for consumer use at all. They are there as tools to help retailers ensure proper product turnover when stocking shelves, yet many consumers believe it is a measure of food safety. The dates lead to so much confusion and food waste that many experts, including the Ohio State researchers as well as researchers with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) suggest making the dates invisible to consumers. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) states you should buy the product before the “Sell By” date expires, adding to the confusion and waste.
- Best If Used By or Before: This date is set by the manufacturer to suggest when to consume the food by for best flavor or quality. However, it is not a measure of safety and foods can typically be safely consumed after the “best by” or “best before” date, often with minimal, if any, changes in taste or texture. Food manufacturers want you to consume their products at their peak freshness and flavor, which means many set food dates conservatively. The methods used by manufacturers to set food dates vary.
- Use by date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. This date is also determined by the manufacturer and may vary widely even between similar products. The USDA recommends, “If a product has a “use by” date, follow that date.” However, they also note: “‘Use by’dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates. Even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality if handled properly.”
You Can Cut Down on Food Waste Starting at Home
The Ad Council and the NRDC launched a “Save The Food” public service campaign to help spread the word that you can make a difference in the amount of food wasted. While food waste must be dealt with on a large scale to stop much of the losses occurring at the farming, processing, distribution and retail levels, you can make a difference starting in your own home. As NRDC explained: “Increasing the efficiency of our food system is a triple-bottom-line solution that requires collaborative efforts by businesses, governments and consumers. The U.S. government should conduct a comprehensive study of losses in our food system and set national goals for waste reduction; businesses should seize opportunities to streamline their own operations, reduce food losses and save money; … and consumers can waste less food by shopping wisely, knowing when food goes bad, buying produce that is perfectly edible even if it’s less cosmetically attractive, cooking only the amount of food they need, and eating their leftovers.”
Also important, learn how to properly organize your refrigerator, as certain parts of your refrigerator are colder than others while other spaces fluctuate in temperature. It is important to store highly perishable foods that require cold storage in the coldest, most temperature-stable areas of your fridge to avoid spoilage.
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