Consumer support for solutions to food waste at the center of an agricultural economist’s study

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When it comes to reducing food waste, consumers prefer solutions that include making it easier to donate food and setting standards for food date labels.

That’s one of the findings of a study — among the first to examine the support and perceived effectiveness of popular food waste solutions — led by an agricultural economist at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

The average American household wastes about 32% of purchased food, which translates to $240 billion in economic losses, according to Linlin Fan, assistant professor of agricultural economics.

“This large amount of food waste is concerning,” she said. “Food waste increases food insecurity by decreasing global and local food availability, tightening the food market, increasing food prices, and using natural resources in unsustainable ways to harm future food production. “

Other problems associated with food waste, she pointed out, include the loss of resources used to produce food – such as water, land and labor – and the costs associated with disposal. and treatment of discarded food.

Several pieces of legislation, including the Food Recovery Act of 2017, the Food Donation Act of 2017, the US Farm Bill of 2018, and the Food Date Labeling Act of 2019, contain provisions aimed at halving food waste by 2030, focusing on waste at retail and household levels.

Although solutions to food waste vary in terms of expected costs, benefits and likelihood of success, Fan said it was important to analyze people’s support and the perceived effectiveness of these solutions to assess feasibility. politics of each as a political option.

Additionally, she said it’s important to look at what social scientists call the “vote-buy” or “claim-action” gap, which occurs when people say one thing but do other. For example, some people support the idea of ​​raising chickens in cage-free conditions, but do not buy cage-free eggs because they cost more.

“The claim-action gap is interesting because food policies often change due to shifts in public opinion,” Fan said. “When a social consensus emerges, changes can be made at the legislative level even if they are not desired by the market. The same logic can apply to people’s attitudes and actual behavioral responses to food waste policies.

To gauge consumer support for suggested solutions to food waste, Fan and his team conducted an online survey of approximately 1,500 panelists. Participants were recruited from an existing consumer panel to match the US population in terms of gender, age, income, race and education. To participate, respondents had to be responsible for at least 50% of household grocery purchases.

Respondents also indicated their gender, age, income, education, race, state of residence, presence of children in the household, and whether they received benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, largely known as SNAP.

The survey proposed nine solutions to reduce food waste: changes in food packaging, changes in portion sizes, standardization of date labeling terms, sale of imperfect products in retail stores, facilitation of food donations, feeding uneaten animals, implementing composting in communities, creating consumer education campaigns on food waste and taxing food waste.

The researchers randomly assigned survey respondents to answer questions about the support and effectiveness of the nine food waste solutions. The survey also asked participants about their own grocery shopping behaviors that mitigate food waste and generation.

The scientists, who recently published their findings in the Journal of Cleaner Production, found that facilitating food donations and standardizing date labels were the two most popular solutions to food waste, with more than 90% support and more than 80% efficiency agreement.

As for ways to facilitate donations, Fan pointed to a law recently passed in France that prohibits supermarkets from throwing away edible food and requires them to partner with an organization that can redistribute food. In addition, Italy now allows the distribution of expired – but safe – food to hunger relief organizations.

Fan also said clarifying dates on food labels can help reduce consumer confusion about the meaning of terms such as “best before,” which refers to quality, and “use by,” which relates to food security.

The survey also found that ‘Using uneaten food to feed animals’, ‘Changes in food packaging’ and ‘Consumer education campaigns on food waste’ had similar levels of support from respondents. , each with nearly 90% of respondents saying they or could support the strategy.

In comparison, 75% of respondents definitely support or could support “Selling imperfect products in retail stores”. “Taxing food waste” had the least support – 13% of respondents would definitely agree and 23% could support it.

The study also suggested that different food waste solutions appeal to people based on their personal experiences with food waste. For example, respondents who used meal kit services were less likely to support diversion strategies such as animal feeding or donations. “One possible explanation is that meal kits are single-serving meals, which may result in less food wastage in the household to feed animals or donate,” Fan said.

Finally, Fan pointed out that the percentage of respondents who considered each food waste solution effective was almost always lower than the percentage of respondents who supported the solution. The gap between efficiency and the support rate could come from difficulties in modifying consumer behavior.

“Future research could assess the costs and benefits of different food waste solutions,” she said. “We hope our research will provide policy makers with information that can be used to develop food waste policies that consumers will support.”

Brenna Ellison, Department of Agricultural Economics, Purdue University, and Norbert Wilson, Divinity School, Duke University, also contributed research.

The US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture funded the study.

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