Study: A lot of food goes into the fridge to die

Americans throw out more food than they expect they will, food waste that is likely driven in part by ambiguous date labels on packages, according to a new study by Ohio State and other researchers.

Researchers hope that you think twice when you put food in your refrigerator.

Why?

Because much of that food goes there to die. As much as 43% eventually goes in the trash due to in-home practices. Consumers are the biggest contributors to food waste, said Brian Roe, one of the study’s authors and a professor of agricultural, environmental and development economics at Ohio State University.

The top reasons that food gets tossed involve food safety, such as odor, appearance and dates on labels.

“No one knows what ‘use by’ and ‘best by’ labels mean, and people think they are a safety indicator when they are generally a quality indicator,” Roe said.

A proposal before Congress would change labeling rules for food expiration dates. Introduced in July, it suggests that food companies use the phrase “Best if used by” instead of “Use by,” in the hope that consumers will base their decisions about discarding food more on odor and appearance.

“They’ve got date labels that are confusing, typically. Portion sizes are oftentimes too large. There are great bargains for buying lots of food in bulk,” Roe said. “And then, you know, we’ve got busy lifestyles, as well, that make it very difficult for us.”

One-third of the food produced worldwide, about 1.3 billion tons, is wasted, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

The Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio has noticed the problem at the landfill, where 12.8% of material buried there is from residential and commercial food waste. That equates to nearly a million pounds of food going to the landfill every day in Franklin County, said Hanna Greer-Brown, a SWACO spokeswoman.

“It’s one of the highest materials in the landfill. It’s right behind paper and plastics,” she said.

A Central Food Waste Initiative was formed to help tackle the problem by encouraging composting and smarter food use. The goal is to cut food waste in the area in half by 2030. In Franklin County, residents and businesses send an estimated 192 million meals to the landfill while hungry residents miss an estimated 69 million meals each year.

“There are so many things that are better than simply landfilling” food, Greer-Brown said.

The food-waste study, which relied on 307 initial surveys and 169 follow-up surveys, found that those who clean out their refrigerators more often are more likely to waste food. Households with younger people were less likely to use all their food than were those with people 65 and older.

Of those surveyed, only about 12% had access to composting, and 16% said they have fed pets unwanted food.

Participants were asked about how much meat, fruits and vegetables they had and how much they planned to eat. A week later, follow-up surveys were conducted showing that they actually ate only about 40% to 50% of the food.

Historically, the phrase for cleaning out the fridge has been, “When in doubt, throw it out.”

“I’m suggesting, ‘When in doubt, use your snout’ to smell the food and see if it’s still OK to eat,” Roe said.

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