During the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns about food waste have intensified. According to Packaged Facts’ new report Food Waste & Upcycling: Trends & Opportunities in Sustainability, 63% of consumers responding to a proprietary survey report being very or somewhat concerned about how much food gets wasted within their home.
Rising Prices and the Cost of Food Waste Drive Food Waste Concerns
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many products have experienced price increases due to a combination of factors such as high demand, supply issues, and rising labor costs. Packaged Facts’ November 2022 National Online Consumer Survey found that 61% of consumers strongly agree that they are concerned about rising food prices, and for good reason.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), year-over-year inflation in the consumer price index (CPI) for food was 10.9% from October 2021 to October 2022. This is among the highest food inflation rates seen in decades.
As prices have risen across the board, companies operating in the food supply chain and consumers alike have become more motivated to reduce food waste. Wasted food is a source of lost money. Any time food is wasted, someone is paying for it:
- Agriculture: Food may be wasted due to oversupply, damage, rot, suboptimal appearance, or culling of animals. The result is less income per harvest or missed resources to feed animal stocks.
- Processing: Food may be wasted due to inefficiency (in process or ingredient usage), food safety issues, cold storage malfunction, or packaging failure. The result is higher cost of disposal, lost money spent on inputs, and missed potential sales.
- Transportation: Food may be wasted due to rejected shipments or rot if timing or transportation temperatures are not optimized. The result is that the owners of the shipment and/or trucking companies lose money.
- Wholesalers/Retailers: Food may be wasted due to oversupply, damage, rot, suboptimal appearance, or food reaching or approaching a sell by or best by date. The result is less potential sales and lost money spent on the food.
- Foodservice: Food may be wasted due to damage, rot, or food reaching or approaching a sell by or best by date. Food also may be thrown out due to mistakes made in the kitchen or consumers leaving food on their plate. The result is fewer potential sales and lost money spent on food.
- Consumers: Food may be wasted due to damage, rot, or food reaching or approaching a sell by or best by date. Consumers who waste food lose the money they spent on it while not getting any use for what they paid.
Economizing and reducing food waste minimizes wasted money (and resources) for all companies and individuals involved in the supply chain from start to finish. Though there is an initial cost or investment required to start changing processes (e.g., new software, improved refrigeration, development of new reuse products), money will be saved in the long run. Companies have a profit motive that encourages them to reduce food waste because of the potential revenue they lose and the money they spend obtaining products, while consumers lose part of their budget on wasted food. Nonprofit organizations, B Corps, and individuals may also be especially motivated to reduce food waste due to moral or ethical issues.
Sustainability Issues Are Also Key to Increasing Concerns about Food Waste
Environmental sustainability is a key issue relating to food waste concerns. Food production creates carbon emissions and uses natural resources such as water and land, so anytime food is wasted, resource use intensifies and accelerates climate change. Because food production (particularly animal farming) contributes to climate change, wasted food can be especially harmful to the environment. Rotting food in landfills can also emit methane, which is a major environmental problem.
Consumers may be concerned about how food waste affects the environment and may also be troubled by ethical issues such as wasted food that could have instead been used to feed individuals in poverty. Many companies have sustainability goals to reduce waste and carbon emissions, so they are also motivated to reduce food waste.
Increasing Shelf Life Is One of the Easiest Ways to Reduce Food Waste
Consumers are responsible for the majority of food waste from the whole supply chain. They throw out many products that go bad before they are able to be used. Additionally, many consumers dispose of food that is past the date on a best by, best before, or sell by label.
Though consumers can change their habits and plan shopping and meals better to reduce their household food waste, one of the easiest ways to reduce food waste is for producers to increase the shelf life of their products. Shelf life improvements give consumers more time to use food before it expires. Some companies research how to improve the shelf life of their own products, while others may be specifically dedicated to food waste reduction and come up with solutions that they sell to producers.
Best By, Best Before, and Sell By Labels Have Limitations
Another significant issue regarding food waste is the labeling that manufacturers use to indicate shelf life and product quality. Food sellers usually discard products that are past their best by, best before, or sell by date, removing food from the supply chain even if it is still edible. Some products may be donated to food banks or pantries where allowed by law, but many products simply get sent to landfills or composting facilities when possible.
Many consumers also throw away food that is past a date indicated on packaging. However, best by, best before, and sell by labels cause confusion about shelf life and product quality, and the dates listed on packaging do not tend to be based on science. These dates are not necessarily expiration dates or dates that indicate food safety as consumers think, but rather, dates the manufacturer chooses based on the best options available given technology limitations, such as consumer surveys on food taste after a certain amount of time.
Using different product dating systems that are more based on scientific study (or smart packaging labels that can gauge the conditions individual items have encountered that reduce shelf life) may help to reduce food waste so that consumers have better criteria for judging whether food is good or safe to eat. Alternatively, manufacturers can eliminate dates aimed at consumer interpretation so that consumers use other criteria to determine whether they dispose of food.
Upcycled Ingredients Are Also an Important Solution
Upcycling, which is also known as creative reuse, is finding a use for something that would otherwise be thrown out. In the context of food waste, some food items that would not otherwise be sold or eaten (e.g., “ugly” produce that has spotting or irregular size or shape, items that are damaged but still safe for consumption, surplus stocks, or waste ingredients from another production process) can be used to make another product. Thus, upcycling is an important solution for reducing food waste.
Commercial upcycling is done in cases where waste products can be repurposed to make a new salable product, which can increase revenue and profit. Commercial products that are made from food waste include juices (made from discarded fruit or vegetable parts), animal feed, seeds that would otherwise be discarded from the processing of a fruit or vegetable, and spent grains used to make beverages such as beer and plant-based milk alternatives.
Consumers can also upcycle some food ingredients at home that would otherwise go to waste. Some food scraps are edible themselves or could be used to make something that is (e.g., soup stock). Some food waste products can also be used to make other non-food items at home, such as body scrubs, candles, fertilizer, and natural dyes.
Additional analysis of food waste, upcycling, and sustainability trends can be found in the November 2022 Packaged Facts report Food Waste & Upcycling: Trends & Opportunities in Sustainability.
About the blogger:
Cara Rasch is a food and beverage analyst for Packaged Facts. She studies consumer and industry trends in this space and has a B.A. in economics from Allegheny College.