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Food Waste: An Introduction to the Issue and Questions that Remain

Food waste is a problem throughout the supply chain and across the globe that is increasingly capturing the attention of policymakers. Gustavsson et al. (2011) estimated that one-third of the food produced for consumption globally is lost or wasted. Within the U.S., Buzby et al. (2014) estimated that 31% of food available at the retail and consumer levels was wasted, which translates to a loss of $161 billion and 141 trillion calories per year (enough calories to feed ~ 193,000,000 people a daily diet of 2,000 calories for a year!) – not to mention the loss of the (scarce) resource inputs like land, water, and energy that went into food production.

How is food waste defined?

Discussions on food waste may also reference the term “food loss”; the terms sound synonymous, but there are distinctions between the two. An ERS report by Buzby et al. (2014) uses the following definitions for food loss and food waste:

  • Food loss represents the amount of edible food, postharvest, that is available for human consumption but is not consumed for any reason. It includes cooking loss and natural shrinkage; loss from mold, pests, or inadequate climate control; and plate waste.”
  • Food waste is a component of food loss and occurs when an edible item goes unconsumed, such as food discarded by retailers due to undesirable color or blemishes and plate waste discarded by consumers.”

Efforts to address food loss have been ongoing in developing countries, such as improvements in harvesting and storage technology, biological controls, etc. For more on research addressing food loss (postharvest loss), see Affognon et al. (2015) and Hodges et al. (2011). Conversely, efforts to address food waste have been more recent. The remainder of this article focuses on the more narrowly defined issue of food waste.

What is being done to reduce food waste?

The costs of food waste (economic and otherwise) have driven efforts in both the public and private sectors to reduce food waste along the supply chain. In the public sector, there are national and international initiatives (U.S. Food Waste Challenge and SAVE FOOD Initiative, respectively) that set waste reduction goals and are designed to facilitate knowledge sharing and best practices for waste reduction across the supply chain. Further, there has been an increase in legislation related to food waste. In the U.S., legislation was introduced to clarify date labeling (“sell by”, “use by”, “best by”, etc.) on food products. In France, a new law was passed that bans supermarkets from throwing away unsold food; instead, they will be required to donate it (Chrisafis, 2016). Although less recent, the South Korean government implemented a volume-based food waste fee system in 2010 where households are forced to pay based on the weight of their waste.

In the private sector, we have also seen the formation of knowledge-sharing groups (e.g., Food Waste Reduction Alliance). In addition, many technological solutions have been introduced that are designed to help track waste (e.g., LeanPath), more optimally plan, shop and cook, donate leftovers, and so on (Hutcherson, 2013). Finally, there has been an increase in the selling of “ugly” fruits and vegetables (those fruits and vegetables that would not normally comply with the cosmetic standards required by retailers). The movement is credited to a grocery retailer in France (Intermarche) but has quickly expanded.  Major U.S. retailers such as Walmart and Whole Foods are offering “ugly” fruits and vegetables in their produce sections.  Both efforts are currently in pilot phase, but with the intention to expand (see Godoy, 2016 for more information).

Questions that remain about food waste

While many reports and food waste reduction initiatives in the public and private sectors identify households (consumers) as one of the biggest sources of food waste, there has been little research to understand how households actually make decisions on throwing out food. Further, this decision is rarely framed as an economic decision, with costs and benefits. There are most certainly cases where the decision to waste may be optimal, depending on one’s preferences, incentives, and resource constraints. For instance, an individual may prefer to throw out milk that is several days past the expiration date rather than run the risk of becoming ill. In discussing his household production model, Becker (1965) suggests that Americans should be more wasteful than people in developing countries because the opportunity cost of their time exceeds the market prices of food and other goods. Thus, it will be critical for future research to account for the different factors that play a role in the keep/waste decision to determine the tradeoffs consumers make in this process.

In addition to examining the waste decision in economic terms, it will be important to explore the heterogeneity across consumers when making these decisions. In other words, we may be able to identify that, in general, consumers will be more averse to wasting food when the cost of that food was high or when there is a replacement readily available; however, some types of people may be even more or less responsive to such factors than the average person. Research has already suggested that income may impact a household’s likelihood of wasting food (Becker, 1965; Daniel, 2016; Qi and Roe, 2016); however, other factors such as age, education, SNAP participation, etc. should also be examined. Understanding these differences may enable policymakers or advocacy groups to better tailor educational efforts to high-waste households.

A final question related to household food waste is: how do we motivate households to change their behavior? Though many ideas come to mind (e.g., education campaigns, waste taxes or waste reduction subsidies, changes in portion sizes or packaging), the answer to this question will likely depend on the household waste decision process, so it is imperative to understand this first before making policy recommendations.

Future articles on food waste will provide insight on some of my own research in this area, including preliminary results from an online survey where we attempt to learn more about the household waste decision process. Additionally, I will share information on my ongoing plate waste study in the University of Illinois dining halls.


Affognon, Hippolyte, Christopher Mutungi, Pascal Sanginga, and Christian Borgemeister. 2015. “Unpacking Postharvest Losses in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Meta-Analysis.” World Development, 66:49-68.

Becker, Gary S. 1965. “A Theory on the Allocation of Time.” The Economic Journal, 75(299):493-517.

Buzby, Jean C., Hodan F. Wells, and Jeffrey Hyman. 2014. “The Estimated Amount, Value, and Calories of Postharvest Food Losses at the Retail and Consumer Levels in the United States.” USDA Economic Research Service, Washington, DC, USA.

Chrisafis, Angelique. 2016. “French Law Forbids Food Waste by Supermarkets.” The Guardian, Available at

Daniel, Caitlin. 2016. “Economic Constraints on Taste Formation and the True Cost of Healthy Eating.” Social Science & Medicine, 148:34-41.

Godoy, Maria. 2016. “Wal-Mart, America’s Largest Grocer, Is Now Selling Ugly Fruit and Vegetables.” NPR The Salt, Available at

Gustavsson, Jenny, Christel Cederberg, Ulf Sonesson, Robert van Otterdijk, and Alexandre Meybeck. 2011. “Global Food Losses and Food Waste: Extent, Causes and Prevention.” Food and Agricultural Organization, Rome, Italy.

Hodges, R. J., J. C. Buzby, and B. Bennett. 2011. “Postharvest Losses and Waste in Developed and Less Developed Countries: Opportunities to Improve Resource Use.” Journal of Agricultural Science, 149:37-45.

Hutcherson, Aaron. 2013. “Waste Not, Want Not: 6 Technologies to Reduce Food Waste.” Food+Tech Connect. Available at

Qi, Danyi, and Brian E. Roe. 2016. “Household Food Waste: Multivariate Regression and Principal Components Analyses of Awareness and Attitudes among U.S. Consumers.” PLoS ONE, 11(7): e0159250.






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