Why do we still waste so much food at home?

Tim Fox was the lead author of Global Food, Waste Not, Want Not1, which was published by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in January 2013.

He told me there were two main factors in household food waste. First was over-purchasing in stores. He said this was caused by confusion over labelling and sales offers that encourage shoppers to buy items they don’t need, or can’t consume.

Consumers confuse sell-by dates with use-by dates. The sell-by date is used by shops to know when they can display a product. It does not indicate the food is inedible.

But consumers often throw food away on this date and purchase unnecessary extra items to replace them.

Retail practices such as buy-one-get-one-free (Bogof), says Fox, are used by supermarkets to push products onto consumer that they hadn’t planned to buy.

“People go into the shopping environment, they see opportunities to buy two for the price of one, half price offers or radically reduced offers and they take too much stuff away and they actually never get around to using it.”

Fox says the second major cause of household food waste is cultural. There has been a widespread disconnection with culinary skills. People don’t know how to deal with food as it goes through various stages of decomposition (but still remains edible).

Instead of cutting away rotten parts of vegetables, or making older items into a soup. People are hypersensitive to older food and throw in into the bin because they are “scared”, says Fox.

A study 2by The Prospectory found that “on average people find only 2 forms of food attractive raw ingredients and food which is cooked and ready to eat”. All other forms of food elicited a strong emotional repugnance.

Fox said our reaction to food and the loss of food management skills was compounded by a long decline in concern about waste. “In recent decades, clearly on a generational basis, there’s been a shift in the perception of waste.”

But he said this trend appeared to be reversing, possibly because of austerity and pressure on household budgets.

This was illustrated by the Wrap figures, he said, which showed a reduction in waste figures since 2007.

Fox said it was his feeling that the issue had become even more prominent in 2013 and a further study (Wrap’s ended in 2012) would see even more improvement.

In the past, supermarkets have been motivated by selling as much food as possible to consumers, regardless of actual need.

“The marketing sales and promotional practices that have been practised by retailers and supermarkets in recent years would indicate that increasing sales has been a prime objective,” says Fox.

But recently, big retailers were becoming more aware of the marketing advantages in helping consumers reduce their waste.

“From a supermarket positioning point of view the issue is whether taking on corporate social responsibility will drive business in a similar way to straightforward sales promotion.

That’s the elephant in the room.”

Fox said it was not yet clear whether recent supermarket measures to reduce waste were being effective or cosmetic.


  1. ^ Global Food, Waste Not, Want Not (www.imeche.org)
  2. ^ A study (theprospectory.files.wordpress.com)

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Why do we still waste so much food at home?

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