Food waste is a complicated concept. There are various definitions from different respected units using data from varying sources and studies using different methods. USDA defines food loss as the loss of edible food that occurs in the food supply chain starting from post-harvest and including losses at the retail and consumer levels. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations defines food loss as the decrease in the quantity or quality of food that occurs in the food supply chain from harvest/slaughter/catch, but doesn’t include loss from retailers, foodservice providers, and consumers. FAO defines food waste as the decrease in the quantity or quality of the food that occurs in the retail and consumption levels of the food supply chain. The United Nations and the Institute of Food Science & Technology (IFST, 2020), the lead professional society of food science and technology in the U.K., follow the FAO definitions.
In this article, I focus on food waste or the loss of food that occurs at the consumer level.
Food Waste Estimates and Causes
The USDA Economic Research Service estimates that, in 2010, food loss in the United States comprised 31% of the food supply at the retail and consumer levels, or approximately 133 billion pounds of food, with an estimated retail value of $162 billion. The European Union’s (EU-28) total edible and inedible food waste is estimated at 88 million tons in 2012, with about 62 million tons (or about 70% of the total food waste) coming from the wholesale and retail, foodservice, and household levels, and costing more than €140 billion ($168 billion) yearly when accounting for associated financial costs. Households contributed the most to the total EU-28 food waste at about 53%, while processing added about 19%.
Global food waste is estimated at 1.3 billion tons per year, per the FAO, or more than one-third of worldwide food production. Fresh fruits and vegetables lead global food waste at 45% of the global food production, with food waste from residential homes one of the largest rates. Most of this waste goes to landfills, where conditions support generating greenhouse gases such as methane, which contribute to global warming. Those food wastes may occur due to improper handling, lack of proper storage, unsold stock, and processing (e.g., peeling, washing, drying). Other factors contributing to food losses and waste in the food supply chain include no raw materials in the farm, no labor in the farm, limitations on transportation, or problems due to infestations, microbial spoilage, over ordering, equipment malfunction, food culls, failure to meet product specifications, seasonal foods, bulk size packaging, overstocking, overproduction, and human error, which often results from lack of worker training.
At the consumer level, a consumer’s different understanding of product expiration dates, product storage at inappropriate temperatures, shopping and cooking in excess of actual need, inappropriate food management, lack of cooking skills, and lack of knowledge of preservation practices further contribute to food waste.
Influence of COVID-19 on Food Waste
Did COVID-19 lead to an increase or a decrease in food waste?
Researchers of a study published in the journal Environment, Development and Sustainability (2020) reported that during a crisis there is a preference to save rather than to throw, as consumers did during severe recessions in Greece and Italy, leading to reduced waste. But the same researchers also contend that pandemic-driven disruptions such as lockdowns, storage limitations, and stockpiling, coupled with the lack of consumer cooking skills and practices, could have increased household food waste during COVID-19.
Research results published in the journal Food Policy in 2015, before the pandemic, indicated that countries that are most developed and have higher income per capita produced larger amounts of food waste. For example, those living in the Czech Republic, Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland produce less food waste than those from Denmark, Ireland, and Sweden. People aged 65 and older tend to produce less food waste than their younger counterparts. Since females are most likely to be the primary food preparers at home, they are more familiar with and produce less food waste than males, according to the same researchers. Unemployment is associated with producing less food waste than employment. Those with a higher level of education tend to have higher earnings and produce more food waste than those with a lower level of education. People living in rural areas produce less food waste than those in urban areas, and living in areas with less litter tends to encourage residents to produce less food waste.
In 2017, before the pandemic, India had one of the lowest food waste rates per capita (51 kg, 112 lb.) in the world. On the other end of the scale, Australia reached 361 kg (796 lb.), while the United States had 278 kg (613 lb.), the highest rates per capita worldwide—more than the combined reported food waste rates of the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, and Sweden. During the pandemic, when researchers interviewed respondents of similar demographics and gender distribution from the U.S. and Italy about their perceived rates of food waste during COVID-19, the respondents thought their rates of food waste had decreased, with a higher rate of reduction among U.S. respondents than those from Italy. The researchers explained that these decreases in food waste may have resulted from targeted shopping or purchasing foods that address specific issues, such as those that strengthen the immune system, increased cooking time at home due to lockdowns and stay-at-home mandates, food shopping with increased and deliberate planning, intentionally decreasing shopping time at the supermarket, and food shopping without family members who were prone to impulse purchasing.
Concerns about the stability of the food supply were heightened during the pandemic, and no clear answers could be obtained from those who supplied food to the consumers. People with high levels of NFC (need for cognitive closure) during these stressful times depended on clear answers, devoid of ambiguity or confusion, to manage stress. They perceived that they needed more food than usual and characteristically stockpiled food without necessarily using it, resulting in a potential increase of food waste and associated food packaging materials.
In its advertisement during Superbowl LV, Unilever hired a celebrity to offer tips on how to avoid food waste at home. Food waste became trending news. But The Hartman Group clarified that food waste has already been in the forefront of consumer concerns, even prior to the pandemic. The group explained that, during the pandemic, consumer awareness increased such that more than half (56%) of those they interviewed were willing to increase composting food waste. Those were in addition to the 16% who were already composting food waste. Thus, a decrease in food waste during COVID-19 was expected.
A formal association between food waste and the environment was established by the Upcycled Food Association in 2020, resulting in another trending initiative. The new trend is called upcycled food products and is defined by UFA as “new, high-quality products from otherwise wasted—but perfectly nutritious—ingredients” for the world community while benefiting the world. UFA claims that more than 100 company members committed to upcycling food products into new, safe products. The organization has also developed a certification scheme that labels food using upcycled food ingredients or products, which will support their vision to “build the sustainable food system of the future.” This trending association of food waste with the growing global concern for the environment is very attractive to Millennials and the younger generations.
COVID-19 resulted in limited food supplies, higher food prices, limited employment opportunities, and reduced take-home pays; however, the increased time in the home improved the consumer’s cooking practices and food management skills, leading to an improved efficiency in food production at the consumer level that may have led to reduced food waste. In addition, because employment, rather than unemployment, is correlated with increased food waste, decreased employment and income may likewise have led to a decrease in food waste. And, perhaps, due to the scarcity of food supplies during the pandemic, consumers consciously increased their awareness of what they should use without waste.
Thus, available research data seem to demonstrate that the food waste rate has been reduced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
To develop meaningful and relevant strategies, it is necessary to have a harmonized global definition of food waste. To date, strategies recommended to reduce food waste at the consumer level (as presently defined) include ways that many consumers are already practicing because of the conditions imposed on them by COVID-19. I described these practices in my recent article in “Global Interests,” which was published in the December 2020/January 2021 issue of Food Quality & Safety, on the eating and buying behavior of consumers during COVID-19. For example, most consumers now plan their meals ahead and prepare shopping lists of specific foods. They read food labels and choose foods like canned and frozen products, which have a shelf life longer than that of fresh fruits and vegetables. They have increased their food storage capacities at home; many have purchased freezers and additional refrigerators.
Although consumers are aware of food expiration dates, there needs to be consumer education on the correct interpretation of “use by __,” “best by __,” or other food expiration terms. Some consumers interpret food expiration dates printed on the food package as absolute dates and throw foods away the day after the expiration date without determining existing food condition, resulting in increased food waste.
Several researchers have prominently recommended communication as a mitigation strategy. Roe and colleagues (in Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy in 2021) emphasized that consumer education should focus on food management and food preservation skills. Sharma and colleagues (in Resources, Conservation & Recycling in 2020) reiterated these areas for consumer education and added that there is a need to teach the public the relationship between shelf life information and food waste.
Brizi and Biraglia (in Personality and Individual Differences in 2021) encouraged policy makers to meet the needs of NFC by using precise and reassuring information rather than emphasizing distressing situations (e.g., the pandemic). These strategies are then pulled together to communicate the aim for a sustainable food system with “core principles” consisting of “reusing food and food waste and composting food to recycle nutrients.”
These strategies are not new, but rather all align under the same global issues—economic, social, and environmental. Consumers currently practice some of these strategies during the stressful times of the COVID-19 pandemic. But, will the consumer continue this behavior when the world has satisfactorily managed COVID-19 and returned to some semblance of pre-pandemic living? Or will consumers selectively choose practices that they find most convenient but produce the results that they are searching for, such as saving money, managing their health, and even improving their appearance and feel? And which practices will those be?
Only time will tell.