Do Consumers Drive Grocery Food Waste?

Photo credit: Secret Freegan.
Photo credit: Secret Freegan.

This is our second report in a series about food waste in America.

As previously reported by The Local Dish, Americans waste over $165 billion of food every year; the equivalent of about 40% of the food we produce.  The majority of this food waste takes place in the home.  On average, the typical US household throws away more than $2,000 worth of edible food every year due to overbuying and spoilage.  Sadly, we’re not alone as this behavior is replicated by affluent nations across the planet.  However, food waste in our homes is just one point along the food chain where food falls through the cracks.  Understanding the where and why food waste happens will provide a basis of knowledge from which to improve efficiency and reduce our waste, but only if we act on it.

Other places along the way to our kitchens where significant amounts of edible food is diverted to landfills and composts include grocery stores, restaurants and farms.  According to a study conducted by California Watch and the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC, the amount of food waste generated in California could completely fill the Staples Center in Los Angeles more than 35 times a year.  On average, the typical food retailer generates over 16,000 lbs. of waste per employee each year.  Of that, 71% gets sent to recycling centers, mostly in the form of cardboard.  That leaves over 4,500 lbs. of waste per employee, mostly comprised of food that has or has nearly reached the marked expiration date, destined for landfills.

Grocers tend to err on the side of caution, for good reason, when disposing of food.  In our litigation prone society, food retailers are motivated to do so out of real concern of selling food that might sicken customers and the potential cost of associated lawsuits.  That tends to be the driving force behind why so many do not donate good, edible food at or near its expiration date to charities and food banks, but it is not the primary catalyst creating food waste.  The real force propelling this behavior is consumer preference.  Our expectation to purchase what we want, when we want and in pristine condition drives grocers to keep their shelves and aisles well-stocked with picture perfect produce and foodstuffs from locations across the planet.  Coupled with our instinctive behavior to avoid purchasing items nearing their expiration date creates a merchandising plan that requires the constant rotation of inventory and the removal of foodstuffs as if they’re going to magically spoil the moment the clock strikes 12:00 am on the package expiration date. In fact, according to WebMD, most food, other than meat, poultry and dairy, is still edible for a much longer period of time  and if meat and poultry were to be placed in the freezer prior to the expiration date, that food too would be able to remain much longer in the food chain.  (Click on the WebMD link above for tips on storing food safely and a chart of recommended refrigeration times.)

However, as long as grocers’ sales are driven by consumers’ preference to buy what we want regardless of seasonality and geography and grocers fear lost revenue from out of stock items or costly lawsuits from selling or donating nearly expired items, how will we ever stop wasting so much good food?

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