How Consumers Can Help Address the US Food Waste Problem

food and beverage - food waste - consumers recycling composting food waste
By Ken Donaven, Martec Director

I’ve written in the past about how shocked I was to discover the amount of food waste that happens in our country (and around the world). Upon learning about the issue, I went on to research and examine various solutions to the problem that the food industry is considering and starting to embrace.

But what about the rest of us? What can we as consumers (and ultimate wasters ourselves) do to become part of the solution, rather than another link in the chain of waste? Ours is no small part: research estimates that 43% of total food wasted occurs in the home. That’s us…overbuying food and then discarding what could be used as leftovers or composted ecologically.

Perhaps an even better question is this: How can we as consumers do our part to reduce our own food waste and influence the industry to adopt new practices that help us achieve this goal? Because, as is the case with most change, adaptation and adoption are frequently driven by consumer demand. It is the innovators in any industry, responding to consumer sentiment first and most effectively, that become revered market leaders in their respective categories.

Change Begins at Home

We are starting to see industry adaptation, partially for altruistic reasons and partially because of the economic impact of waste. Colleges and universities, for example, are taking steps to divert the food waste their facilities generate away from landfills and toward purposeful composting programs.

Manufacturers and retail dispensers of fresh meat, produce and dairy, are constantly innovating their packaging to prolong shelf life, thereby slowing spoilage and, hopefully, doing their part to minimize food being discarded due to on-shelf degradation. Two relatively recent innovations in retail meat preservation are Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) and Vacuum Skin Packaging (VSP). You may have seen these unique packages at your local grocer. These packages serve to remove atmospheric exposure to the product, thereby prolonging and optimizing the shelf life of the meat. Technological innovations such as these result in a win-win scenario for the food supply chain: the retailer saves money via longer shelf lives and reduced waste and the consumer gets fresher food product that lasts longer in their refrigerator.

As consumers, we should seek out such innovators, whether they be retail grocers or the manufacturers themselves, and reward their innovation with our loyalty. The more we vote with our dollars, the more the industry will respond to shifting consumer demand and do more to contribute to the reduction of food waste.

But to do that, we must start with education. I encourage consumers who share my concern about the vast amount of food waste to research both MAP and VSP, along with other food-preservation innovators, and seek them out specifically when shopping. Learn what these products look like, research where to find them, and demonstrate your commitment by shopping at these grocers and manufacturers with specific intent.

In addition, two other potential solutions to the food waste problem exist:

1 – Better understanding of food labels: I’ve become a strong proponent of reform, regulation and legislation relative to what I think are very confusing food-labeling practices. What does “Best by…” mean to you? Or “Sell by?” Are they the same? Different? Are they guidelines, or mandates? Are they mere suggestions, or are they legitimate warnings about food safety? Who decides how to label the foods we buy? Are these marketing gimmicks, designed to create a false sense of urgency, or are they industry-endorsed best practices? The answers are varied, of course. I wouldn’t recommend taking chances with dairy and chicken, for example, but there are plenty of examples in which these usage directives are merely freshness indicators, not legitimate expiration dates.

I believe our legislators must take a more active interest in standardizing food labels/dates, so we’re not throwing away good food needlessly.  Further, consumers must do better research to get smarter on food spoilage and to understand what the dates/labels on our foods actually mean… and then shop and eat accordingly. We need to learn what really is meant by the dates we read on packaging, and improve our ability to discern between legitimate guidelines and marketing tactics or other superficially fabricated freshness directives.

2 – There’s an app for that. As seems to be the case in all walks of life these days, modern technology is being applied to solve age-old conundrums. And, yes… our smart phones now have the ability to help us reduce food waste. Flashfood is an app that was developed in Canada but which is now partnering with grocers in the U.S. (with grocery chain Hy-Vee, initially) to help consumers and retailers unite to reduce food waste. The premise is simple: Flashfood works with grocery inventory systems to identify food that is approaching its expiration date. It then automatically discounts that inventory and sends out alerts to consumers who have the app, making them aware of the significant discounts available.

Another win-win-win. The retailer moves more product and reduces non-revenue waste; the consumer receives a discount and contributes to the reduction of food waste; and manufacturers gain greater insight into the supply chain drivers, allowing them to optimize sales and reduce waste themselves!

Food for Thought…and for Emotions

Again, I believe consumer demand ultimately will drive a significant portion of the innovation that comes along to help eliminate food waste in our country—that, and the promise of cost savings for the industry side of this equation. And as consumer demand shifts, the food and beverage industry will have to respond. As we at Martec work to understand and predict how consumer emotions are shaping the future of the food and beverage industry, it’s important to remember that emotional drivers are sure to influence consumer perception as much as economic drivers—potentially more. Consumers will vote with their dollars, to be sure…but they will lead with their hearts.

It has become increasingly critical for food-industry operators to understand emotional connections (or disconnects) people have with food products, retailers and manufacturers. Harnessing emotional research and customer experience data can help decode the emotional connection people have to food…or the waste thereof. A sophisticated measurement tool like the Martec Emotion Score, for example, allows companies to equate a numerical (quantitative) value to how positive or negative a customer feels (qualitatively) about a given food and beverage brand. Emotions are sure to rise over time, as more and more people discover—then become passionate about—food waste (as I have). So this is something everyone in the food and beverage industry should closely monitor and stay in front of.

And as we’ve seen across industries, there will be winners and losers. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.

Do you have thoughts about what the industry and we consumers can do to help solve the food waste problem? Let’s connect.

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