When it comes to food waste, the United States has a bit of a guilty conscience. And given that we waste an estimated 40 percent of the food we produce each year, that’s with good reason.
A new survey released last week and published in PLOS ONE found that 77 percent of respondents in a poll of 500 people representative of the U.S. population agreed that they feel guilty when they throw out food.
But it’s unclear if most Americans truly understand why they might feel guilty about food waste. Only 58 percent of respondents said they believed food waste was bad for the environment, while just 42 percent saw food waste as a major source of wasted money.
That disconnect came as a surprise to Brian Roe, a professor of agricultural marketing and policy at Ohio State University and the study’s co-author.
“Our intuition is that respondents might think that throwing away food is environmentally benign because food is organic and naturally occurring,” Roe wrote via email to HuffPost, “and they haven’t quite connected the dots that food that goes to a landfill produces methane, which has substantial environmental impacts and that all the energy and resources that went into creating the wasted food are essentially now useless.”
There also appeared to be a disconnect between respondents’ guilt about food waste and the feeling that they could do anything about it.
Fifty-one percent of respondents felt it would be difficult for them to reduce food waste in their homes and 42 percent said they don’t have enough time to worry about it. Further, it appears that most Americans believe we’re doing better than our neighbors on food waste — 87 percent of respondents said they believed they toss out less food than similar households.
The survey also provided insight into some of the causes of food waste. About 70 percent of respondents said that throwing away food past its package date reduces the risk of someone getting a foodborne illness.
This is a misconception, the Ohio State researchers say.
“As recent congressional testimony points out, label dates are not generally indicators of safety,” Roe noted.
An effort to standardize food labels could address this. The researchers and other advocates are pushing for confusing labels like “sell by” and “use by” to be supplanted by more straightforward ones like “best by” and “expires on.” Federal legislation with this aim was proposed earlier this year.
While less confusing date labels could help, it is still only part of the solution, the researchers and others working to reduce food waste argue.
Awareness of food waste appears to be growing — the Ohio State poll observed a 10 percentage point increase in the number of people who said they were aware of the issue when compared to a similar Johns Hopkins poll taken last year.
But awareness still relatively low. The new poll found only 53 percent of respondents were aware food waste was a problem in the first place.
Awareness, too, isn’t action. Stefanie Sacks, a food writer and nutritionist who is helping to push retailers like Whole Foods and Walmart to agree to sell “ugly” produce as a means of reducing food waste at the retail level, believes education is the key to getting consumers on board.
“We have to hit people in their kitchens,” Sacks told HuffPost. “We need to give people the tools, not only to cook but also to have tools to store and manage waste. We need to give people information.”
That’s because consumer-level food waste represents such a large piece of overall food waste in the U.S. According to USDA data, about 30 percent of all food loss occurs at either the retail or consumer level. Consumer food waste outnumbers retail waste in nearly every commodity category, with the lone exception of added fats and oils.
New technology could also prove helpful. The Ohio State team, including study co-author Danyi Qi, is currently working with with researchers at Louisiana State University to develop such a tool — a new app that measures household food waste.
Even with recent progress, other food waste experts are aware movement on the issue is still going to take time, though there are plenty of opportunities for meaningful action — pushing for standard date-label legislation, engaging with initiatives like the Walmart “ugly” produce campaign — now.
“This isn’t going to change overnight,” Natural Resources Defense Council staff scientist and Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook author Dana Gunders told HuffPost. “I think it’s going to take decades to really fundamentally fix [food waste], but I think there is a lot we can do quickly.”
Alissa Scheller contributed graphics to this piece.
Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email email@example.com.