- A new Ohio State University (OSU) study on grocery consumption published in Resources, Conservation and Recycling confirms that U.S. shoppers drastically overestimate how much refrigerated food they will finish.
- For example, while 97% of respondents thought they’d eat all their meat, only 50% had by the time of a follow-up survey. However, the 12% of participants with access to organics collection or recycling options were less likely to overestimate or underestimate their consumption.
- Products with vague expiration dates (ones without a "use by" or "best by") were 99% likely to not be completely finished. These results bolster legislative and educational efforts to clarify expiration dates, according to the report authors.
As food waste continues to attract international attention – along with ongoing investment and policy interest at all levels of the supply chain – it's still important to focus on what can be done at the household level.
To avoid data inaccuracies that might come from shoppers estimating how much they toss, the research team asked shoppers about their food habits twice.
First, participants responded with how much of their fridge items in a randomly-assigned category — fruit, vegetables, dairy or meat — they anticipated eating. Five to 18 days later, 169 individuals reported on whether those products were still there – and if not, whether they had been eaten or trashed. The surveys also asked about details such as income, age and education level, along with other shopping-related habits – for instance, what factors the respondent considered when deciding to throw away food.
Only 49% of those who anticipated eating all of their designated groceries followed through. Fruit, the category with the most accurate predictions, was still off by nearly 30%. A reported 71% of shoppers thought they'd eat everything, but only 40% did.
While organics recycling options have becomes a bigger focus in many municipal "zero waste" plans, the study found no relationship between those resources and particular consumption habits. However, people with those systems were less likely to think that food appearance or trust in the store's food quality are important considerations when choosing to toss an item.
Additionally, about 55% percent of all respondents consider "passed date on package" to be a very important factor when deciding what to keep – reflected by results indicating that any item with a "best by," "use by" or unexplained date are less likely to get used up.
Waste reduction advocates have long argued these vague labels motivate shoppers to throw away perfectly good food, with some estimates saying 20% of edible and safe items end up trashed due to confusion.
Congress might agree: A new bill in the House proposes regulating the wording on packages and eliminating unexplained dates. Such a labeling overhaul could save 398,000 tons of food from landfills, according to ReFED, a nonprofit working to reduce food waste.
"These results line up 100% with recent research and policy recommendations about food labeling in the US – the current system is confusing to consumers and results in unnecessary food waste," study co-author and OSU graduate student Megan Davenport wrote to Waste Dive.
Davenport also noted that a grocery item not being consumed within the response time frame didn't necessarily mean it was trashed. Respondents could say the food was still in their fridge – the second most-common answer after "all was eaten." Still, each category saw respondents trashing at least some of their purchases. Fruit was the only category where food was completely tossed without any prior consumption.
These insights into who over-purchases what foods and how they decide to toss it, the authors say, can help tease apart the reasons why individuals are personally contributing to such a high proportion of waste food. Future research, Davenport wrote, could continue to explore the intricacies of the data, or ask more detailed questions about how organics collection access changes consumer food waste behavior.