What to do about food waste? - First results from the COSUS project

The COSUS project provides an overview of consumers and food waste.

2015.05.04 | Merete Elmann

The COSUS project, a European project in which researchers from 5 countries (6 partner institutions, in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands and Germany) cooperate, has finalised its first stage of research. COSUS runs from June 2014 to May 2017 and is a SUSFOOD ERA-net research project that stands for ‘Consumers in a sustainable food supply chain’. It focuses on suboptimal foods and the consumer´s role in causing or reducing food waste.

As a first step, interviews have been conducted with acknowledged experts from academia, public institutions and non-governmental organisations, alongside with a review of the existing research on food waste at the consumer level and in the consumer-retailer interaction. The results highlight the factors causing consumer-related food waste, as well the potential actions to reduce food waste. The findings will serve as a starting point for subsequent consumer research and experiments that the COSUS project team will conduct in the coming years. Jessica Aschemann-Witzel, associate professor at the MAPP Centre at Aarhus University, explains the results on behalf of the COSUS project team.

How do you define ‘suboptimal’ food?
We define ‘suboptimal’ foods as foods that are perceived as relatively undesirable by a consumer as compared to otherwise similar foods because they are either 1) close to, at or after the best-before date, or 2) deviating (visually, or in other sensory perception) from what is regarded as optimal (usually equal to what is perceived as ‘normal’). This can be both in the ‘buy/don´t buy’ choice situation in the store, or in the ‘consume/don´t consume’ choice situation in the household. These two types of ‘suboptimal’ foods are very often wasted, even if they could be eaten.

What are the major factors causing consumer-level food waste?
We conclude that the household composition in terms of age and number of household members appears to play a major role in determining to what extent food is wasted. Even more important, though, are the following factors:

  • The level of consumers’ motivation to avoid food waste due to ethical concern. These are concerns such as the environmental impact, the unfairness of wasting food in the light of hunger in other world regions, or scruple to waste food rooted in values or religious beliefs.
  • The extent to which consumers prioritise different goals that might clash in every day’s food handling in the household. For example, the goal of avoiding food wastage might need to be traded-off with health or safety concerns, or food wastage with convenience and household members liking or disliking of foods and meals.
  • The ways in which consumers organise their food provision and perceive food and meal preparation. For example, consumers differ in the extent to which they are capable to efficiently manage purchase, storage, and preparation of foods (e.g. using shopping lists, reusing leftovers). This factor also includes how consumers perceive the whole process, such as whether they take pride in being ‘thrifty’ or enjoy the creativity in dealing with leftovers.

However, consumer´s motivations, priorities, capabilities and perceptions are of course crucially influenced by their surroundings. Here, the following factors are relevant:

  • The immediate context in which food is chosen, such as which foods are sold in stores and the way foods are marketed and presented with regard to packaging, pricing and communication.
  • The social influences on food choice and food handling decisions, for example culture or family-specific habits determining which parts or remains are edible or not, and social norms on appropriate food- and eating-related behaviour.
  • The overall macro-environmental context, such as laws on food safety or date labelling, technological developments in food processing, packaging or storage, and the economic situation and general trend in terms of consumer culture.

What do you conclude should be done to reduce consumer-level food waste?
Based on the literature review and expert interviews, we suggest several potential areas for action.

On the consumer side, it appears that more activities to improve consumer knowledge about date labelling on foods would be especially effective. Moreover, attempts to broaden consumers’ willingness to accept ‘suboptimal’ foods and to change social norms that are relevant to food waste are interesting areas for action. Finally, ideas to improve consumers’ food handling capabilities in the household and their solving of conflicts between different goals are promising directions.

In the interaction between consumers and the food sector, we suggest that producers or retailers can increase their efforts to communicate the role and function of packaging in avoiding food waste. They can review or further develop their pricing strategies for ‘suboptimal’ foods (e.g., reduced prices for suboptimal foods, but also other approaches). Moreover, expanding cooperation with alternative retail formats for foods that cannot be sold is promising. We also argue that retailers can contribute to reduction of consumer-related food waste by appealing to various motives for avoiding food waste in their communication to their customers - so that consumers become convinced of both the altruistic ethical and the self-centred economic arguments. This will hopefully motivate consumers to persist with food choices and behaviours that avoid food waste in the long run.

What has especially caught your attention in this research step?
Food waste is an issue closely connected to our everyday life, of which food and eating is a central part. Therefore it is both very complicated but yet simple and basic. There are many conflicting factors that have an influence on the decision not to buy or not to consume a certain food, which then ends up wasted. Consumers are not highly motivated to change this situation given the food does not cost us that much in the first place. In the end, though, it simply boils down to whether or not we, as individuals, decide to throw the food into the bin or not.

With the understanding that food is a vital source of life, food waste strikes many people as just-not-right. It is good news to find that consumers rather dislike wastage of food. That also explains why the public interest in food waste has remained high ever since several very active campaigners have drawn attention to it. This is a good entry point for consumers to become interested in the overall sustainability of our food production and consumption, of which food waste is just one of various issues to tackle.

Further than that, food waste is a topic where consumers themselves can do many small but successful adjustments. It is especially interesting to find that these actions do not need to be perceived as a burden, but that consumers could also enjoy their new self as ‘thrifty smart shoppers’ or ‘creative leftover cooking champions’ - especially if that is supported by favourable social norms and a respective consumer food trends.

What are the next steps in the project?
In the coming months, the researchers from the six partner institutions will carry focus group discussions with consumers on ‘suboptimal’ foods as well as conduct a cross-country consumer survey. We are also analysing especially successful activities against food waste in form of case studies.

For more information on the project, please see cosus.nmbu.no.

The project is coordinated by Dr. Marije Oostindjer from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, and conducted together with the partners from Nofima/Norway, Technical University of Dresden, Germany, Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology (SIK) in collaboration with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), Wageningen University (WUR), and Aarhus University, Denmark. It is funded within the ERA-Net SUSFOOD, see www.susfood-era.net.

For more information on the research described above, please contact Jessica Aschemann-Witzel at the MAPP Centre, Aarhus University, via www.mapp.au.dk or jeaw@badm.au.dk.

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