Food consumers wasted approximately “133 billion pounds of food

Food waste is an increasingly important topic due to the
environmental and financial impact it has. According to the Food and
Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, food waste is the” discarding
of food that is safe and nutritious for human consumption along the entire food
chain, from the initial production to the end household consumer level” (“Food
Loss and Food Waste”). The role that consumers play in generating food waste is
an important aspect of food waste that needs to be addressed to enact solutions.
It is estimated by the United States Department of Agriculture that consumers
wasted approximately “133 billion pounds of food and $161 billion worth of food
in 2010” (“Food Waste Challenge”). Consumers not only play a crucial role in
increasing food waste by their purchasing and household choices but by also
influencing the supply chain by businesses and retailers trying to satisfy
consumer perceptions and purchasing behavior towards food. To address and
propose solutions for the reduction of consumer food waste, there must be an
understanding of the reasons consumers waste food, and those reasons fall under
the categories of consumer attitudes and motivation towards food waste, consumer
management and handling of food, and consumer misconceptions of food quality
and safety. With a focus on these factors contributing to consumer food waste,
solutions can be identified at governmental, retail, and consumer levels.

                For many in developed
nations, food is often abundant and available, and this access to large amounts
of food create behaviors and attitudes that decrease appreciation of food and
create an unawareness surrounding the impact consumers play in generating food
waste. One of the key points made in a literature review conducted by Waste and
Resources Action Program in the UK is that many people lack the awareness of
the food they are wasting because there is a disconnect from the activities
that causes food waste and the consequence of wasting food (Household Food and Drink Waste: A People
Focus 9). Food wastage is not apparent for many consumers today because
consumers do not see the direct impact of their contribution to food wastage
and lack an understanding of the importance of not wasting food. This
difference in appreciating food and food wastage can be seen generationally.
For example, households containing consumers who have lived in times where food
was scarce like during the Great Depression or World War II have been shown not
waste as much food as households with only young consumers (Aschemann-Witzel et
al. 6464). This generational gap also highlights the importance of how the
historical developments and advancements have shaped the food wastage behaviors
of consumers today.

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                While there is a
generational component to consumer behavior towards food, there are also perceptions
and biases that consumers hold that determine their behavior with food. A
study, conducted
by Danyi Qi and Brian Roe of Ohio State University, shows that while the
awareness gap about food waste is decreasing, there is a significant
discrepancy among consumers about their role in reducing food waste.
Seventy-five percent of respondents report that they waste less than the
average American, and that they thought that food waste was an ethically
improper thing to do; however, when the respondents were asked as why they
think food waste occurs, their responses tend to put the blame on the retail
and production stages of the food chain (Qi and Roe 8). This shifting of blame
and misconceptions about food waste greatly contributes to the lack of
motivation to change individual behaviors to address food waste even though
many of the respondents felt that they were more morally or environmentally
conscious of the effects of food waste than others. Overall, these attitudes
and biases are making people less likely to make efforts to reduce the amount
of food they are throwing way.

                In
addition to the attitudes and biases of consumers towards food waste, food
waste is often generated by improper food handling and management. Food
spoilage makes up the largest portion of food wastage by consumers, and food
spoilage is often caused by improper management of food because consumers often
do not have the motivation, knowledge, and ability to ensure that food is not
wasted (Russell et al. 108). Preventing food waste is not the highest priority
for people when they are managing their food but rather a focus on food
quality, food safety, food tastes, and diets is what people often place ahead
of making sure food does not get wasted. Consumers have some knowledge about
how to manage food, but they often do not act accordingly. For example, people
tend to maintain a refrigerator temperature that is too high and often do not
understand the product’s packaging instructions for storage conditions (van
Geffen et al. 25). Another way people mishandle food is by overpreparing food
and not utilizing leftovers. People often prepare as much as possible without
measuring the amount that they need, which creates leftovers. The reason that
consumers throw out food after preparing too much is because they are not sure
about what to do with their leftovers or partly used products like ingredients,
sauces, and vegetables (van Dooren 5). These issues stem from the lack of
knowledge and the skills on how to creatively utilize food and create solutions
for managing food.

                Lack of
knowledge and ability to properly manage food is an important factor in the
generation of food waste, and this is often due to consumer misconceptions
about food quality and safety. Studies have found that many consumers tend to
misunderstand the meaning of the use-by and best-before date labels, and the
consumers who do understand the labels tend to still throw away food
prematurely (Gunders 13). The label dates are the manufacturer’s way to
estimate the freshness of their product, and these dates are not federally
regulated, which means that these dates have nothing to do with the safety of
the food. It is estimated that that up to twenty percent of wasted food is due
to confusion over food dates (Tsiros and Heilman 115). Another contributor to
food wastage due to concerns over food safety is the appearance of the food.
Many consumers subconsciously associate blemished food with safety concerns,
and this leads to consumers not buying or keeping foods that have blemishes
even though the food is safe. The lack of purchasing blemished food by the
consumers creates a feedback loop throughout the food supply chain that
generates more food waste. Farmers will leave blemished products in the field,
and production centers will use the process of culling to weed out produce
based on superficial qualities like appearance, color, weight, and shape even
though attributes do not always correlate with food quality and safety (Gustavsson
et al. 3). Retailers also fear that consumers will not purchase blemished
foods, so they engage in practices that lead to substantial waste and damage of
produce.

For consumers, the importance of food
safety and quality often takes precedence over the importance of food waste and
sustainability. When the argument over food waste is framed between choosing
the environment versus safety for oneself and others, many consumers choose the
latter because they do not think that their immediate health should be
jeopardized for a distant consequence (Stancu et al. 15). This line of thinking
feeds into the overindulgence of wasting food that is artificially deemed
unsafe even though the food would not be toxic or dangerous for consumption.
There are tradeoffs that consumers are willing to make about food waste if they
feel that their health and ability to provide quality and tasty food would be
jeopardized by consuming or keeping potentially unsafe food.