Buy One Get One Free. Now with 50% More. Grocery stores constantly try to force extra food down our throats (literally) with sales and marketing schemes suggesting that we just. get. more. They don’t care what happens once the food leaves their shelves. Particularly in developed countries, we have a hard time passing up what seems like a good deal. So we might only want one carton of strawberries, but when we can get one more for free, we usually do. The strawberries then languish in the fridge, slowly, and then quickly, overtaken by mold and rot, because, actually, we only wanted one carton.
Supermarkets, particularly the large ones, have immense power when it comes to deciding what gets into their stores and how they are marketed and priced. These decisions can have vast impacts on both suppliers and consumers, and on what happens after the food is sold. Wal-Mart, for example, stocked Vlasic pickles in gallon jars and slashed prices to just $2.97. Consumers fell in love with them, they sold like crackerjacks, and Vlasic lost millions of dollars of profits, while consumers tossed half the jars because what family can eat a gallon jar of pickles before they go bad (Fishman, 2003)?
Food waste by consumers accounts for approximately 35% of total food waste, though this number is disproportionately high in developed countries, where over 40% of total food waste happens at the consumption stage of the food chain (WRI, 2013; FAO, 2011). In 2012 alone, Americans threw out approximately 35 million tons of food (Ferdman, 2014).
In industrialized countries, shoppers have certain expectations about what grocery stores should look like, and grocery stores have certain expectations about what food should look like. Though some research shows that consumers are willing to purchase misshapen or blemished food as long as taste is not compromised (Stuart, 2009), markets seem convinced that food must look a certain way to attract buyers. For example, a major carrot supplier in Britain loses approximately 25% of his harvest after the carrots pass through a photographic sensor machine that searches for color, shape, and blemishes. In this case, the carrots are used for animal feed and thus don’t exit the food chain, but often the food simply goes to waste (Stuart 2009).
Ugly Food Movement
Due to concerns about food waste, some markets, particularly in Europe, are embracing blemished food and selling it as “wonky,” “inglorious,” or “naturally imperfect” (Mitchell, 2015). Intermarche, one of France’s largest supermarkets, launched an “inglorious fruits and vegetables” campaign in 2014, the same year declared the Year Against Food Waste by the European Union. Store traffic increased by 24 percent, and each store sold an average of 1.2 tons of ugly produce during the first two days of the promotion (Bratskeir, 2015; Godoy, 2015) It remains to be seen if these “ugly” foods can catch on around the world and reduce food waste that stems from visual imperfections.
Food Label Confusion
The food that does make it into the market is labelled with a variety of dates, from “sell by,” to “use by,” to “best by.” These dates cause mass confusion in consumers, and are responsible for much of the food waste that occurs in households. For example, it’s natural to assume that “use by” 11-17-15 means that you should in fact, consume that food product by November 17, 2015. That’s not actually what it means though. Food dates are generally just suggestions from manufacturers about when the food is at its peak, and have nothing to do with food safety. A survey by the Food Marketing Institutes shows that nine out of 10 Americans throw food away based on food dates, despite the fact that most of that wasted food is perfectly edible (NRDC 2013). Tossing food before it actually goes bad is a major contributor to the approximately $1,600 of annual food wasted by each American family (WRI, 2013).
Public outreach and education programs are one way minimize waste caused by date confusion. It is fine, for example, to eat most foods beyond their “best before” date as long as the food still looks, smells, and tastes ok. The “use by” date, on the other hand, is applied to meat and fish, and should be adhered to (Smith 2014). Most consumers don’t actually know these differences however, and simply toss things in the trash with a sigh.
In addition to increasing public education about food label dates, consistent regulations could help. Currently, “use by,” “best buy,” and other expiration dates are placed at the discretion of the manufacturer, and have no federal oversight. the only exception is infant formula, which has a federally mandated labeling system (US FDA). The lack of consistency in food date labels means that consumers don’t actually know when food should be eaten by, and because these labels are so prevalent, we have been taught to pay attention to them, despite their lack of genuine meaning.
If state or federal guidelines are not put in place, it would behoove society to not only learn about what the dates actually mean, but also to learn about better food storage and how to identify food that has gone bad. With most things, this usually just means sticking your nose near the product and taking a whiff, or feeling around for squishy bits. My point is, none of this is rocket science, yet we still waste massive amounts of food. If we can come together and start an ugly food movement, provide a little education about food date labels, and teach people how to better store their food, we could move a long way towards reducing food waste and increasing both personal and global food security.
About the Author: Alison Singer is a first year PhD student in the Department of Community Sustainability at Michigan State University. She is studying how individuals and stakeholder groups make decisions about complex environmental issues.
Bratskeir, Kate. 2015. Eat Hideously Ugly Produce If You Care About The Planet. The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/if-you-want-to-save-the-planet-eat-uglier-vegetables_55c2805be4b0d9b743daba7e.
FAO. 2011. Global food losses and food waste – Extent, causes and prevention. Rome.
Ferdman, Roberto A. 2014. Americans throw out more food than plastic, paper, metal, and glass. The Washington Post. September 23, Wonkblog.
Fishman, Charles. 2003. The Wal-Mart You Don’t Know. Fast Company. http://www.fastcompany.com/47593/wal-mart-you-dont-know.
Godoy, Maria. 2015. In Europe, Ugly Sells In The Produce Aisle. NPR: the salt. http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/12/09/369613561/in-europe-ugly-sells-in-the-produce-aisle.
Mitchell, Stan. 2015. Why people are falling in love with “ugly food.” TIME, March 27. http://time.com/3761942/why-people-are-falling-in-love-with-ugly-food/.
NRDC. 2013. The Dating Game: How confusing food date labels lead to food waste in America. http://www.nrdc.org/food/expiration-dates.asp.
Smith, Roff. 2014. In Battle Against Food Waste, Rethinking “Use By” Labels. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/11/141120-food-waste-use-by-expiration-labels-ngfood/.
Stuart, Tristram. 2009. Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal. W.W. Norton & Company.
WRI. 2013. Reducing Food Loss and Waste. Working Paper, May. http://www.wri.org/publication/reducing-food-loss-and-waste.