Long Read: The Lie of “Expired” Food and the Disastrous Truth of America’s Food Waste Problem

Alissa Wilkinson wrote . . . . . . . . .

Maybe you know the routine. Every so often, I go through my refrigerator, check labels on the items, and throw out anything that’s a month, or a week, or maybe a few days past the date on the label. I might stop to sniff, but for my whole adult life, I’ve figured that the problem was obvious — my jam or almond milk or package of shredded Italian cheese blend had “expired” — and the fix was simple: Into the garbage it goes.

This habit is so ingrained that when I think about eating food that’s gone past its date, I get a little queasy. I’ve only had food poisoning once or twice in my life, always from restaurants, but the idea is still there in my head: past the date, food will make me sick. You’ll probably never catch me dumpster-diving.

I know, on some intellectual level, that throwing away food is probably wrong. The statistics are damning. Forty percent of food produced in America heads to the landfill or is otherwise wasted. That adds up. Every year, the average American family throws out somewhere between $1,365 and $2,275, according to a landmark 2013 study co-authored by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council. It’s a huge economic loss for food growers and retailers, who often have to ditch weirdly shaped produce or overstocked food that didn’t sell.

Environmentally it’s bad, too. The study found that 25 percent of fresh water in the US goes toward producing food that goes uneaten, and 21 percent of input to our landfills is food, which represents a per-capita increase of 50 percent since 1974. Right now, landfills are piled high with wasted food, most of which was perfectly fine to eat — and some of which still is.

On top of this, I know that in the same country that throws away so much food, about 42 million people could be living with food insecurity and hunger. Yet state-level regulations often make it difficult to donate past-date food to food banks and other services.

America has a food waste problem. But I’ve rarely been clear on how that translates to how I actually treat the food in my refrigerator. Because what can you do, right? When the date says it’s done, it’s done, right?

Apparently, very wrong. Researchers have found that “expiration” dates — which rarely correspond to food actually expiring or spoiling — are mostly well-intentioned, but haphazard and confusing. Put another way, they’re not expiration dates at all. And the broader public’s misunderstanding about them is a major contributor in every single one of the factors I named above: wasted food, wasted revenue, wasted household income, and food insecurity.

If you’ve been throwing out food based on the freshness label, though, you’re not alone. It’s a widespread practice. Chef, journalist, and cookbook writer Tamar Adler, author of An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, explains: “In the absence of culinary information, people assume that any information they’ve been given must be the most important information.” A big part of the problem is that most of us don’t really believe we’re capable of determining if a food is good for us.

“It’s really hard to imagine you’re supposed to trust your own nose and mouth,” Adler said. “Add that to convenience culture and rapacious late-stage capitalism and, well, we’re fucked.”

The good news is that the problem wouldn’t be all that hard to fix, in the abstract. The bad part is that solving the broader system around it takes time, education, and a shift in our consumption habits. But the incentives for virtually everyone involved are high — and a good place to start is by figuring out what those labels actually mean and how to interact with them.

Everything you assume about date labels is probably wrong

There are two vital facts to know about date labels on foods in the US: They’re not standardized, and they have almost nothing to do with food safety.

Date labels first started appearing in the decades following World War II, as American consumers increasingly moved away from shopping at small grocery stores and farms and toward supermarkets, with their rows of packaged and curated options. At first, manufacturers printed a date code on cans and packages for the benefit of the grocer, so they’d have a guideline for when to rotate their stock. The label was not designed for consumers. But since shoppers wanted to buy the freshest food on the shelf, savvy folks started publishing booklets that gave a guide for deciphering the codes.

Eventually, producers — seeing that shoppers actually wanted to know what those secret dates were — started including more clearly readable dates on the packages, with month, day, and year. They saw it as a marketing boon; it was a way to attract consumers and signify that your food was fresh and flavorful. Consumers loved it, and the so-called “open date” labels became common. But there was little consistency about them.

And while the federal government made some attempts beginning in the 1970s to enact legislation that would standardize what those labels mean across the country, they failed. (The exception is infant formula, for which there are strict federal guidelines.) Instead, the burden fell on state (and sometimes local) legislatures, which passed laws that varied wildly, often relying on voluntary industry standards. One state might never require labels; another may mandate that the freshness label on milk have a date of 21 days after bottling; a third may set the same date at 14 days. (In my home state of New York, there are laws about labels, but the standards don’t mention dates at all — though certainly many manufacturers still put date labels on their products, and various municipalities at times set their own guidelines.) State-to-state discrepancies can be costly for manufacturers, who had to come up with ways to produce multiple labels for multiple regions. But it’s also baffling to consumers.

The labels are inconsistent, too. What the label actually indicates varies from producer to producer. So you might have a “best by” label on one product, a “sell by” label on another, and a “best if used before” label on a third. Those have different meanings, but the average consumer may not immediately realize that, or even notice there’s a difference.

Furthermore, those dates might not even be consistent across brands of the same food product — peanut butter, say, or strawberry jam. That’s partly because they’re not really meant to indicate when a food is safest. Most packaged foods are perfectly fine for weeks or months past the date. Canned and frozen goods last for years. That package of chips you forgot about that’s a month out of date isn’t going to kill you — they just might be a tiny bit less crunchy than you’d like. (The huge exception is foods like deli meats and deli salads, which won’t be reheated before they’re consumed and can pick up listeria in the production process — but that’s the exception, not the rule.) You can check for the freshness of eggs by trying to float them in a glass of water (if it sinks, it’s good). Properly pasteurized milk, which is free of pathogens, should be fine if it tastes and smells fine. But many of us, with the best of intentions, just look at what the label says and throw out what’s old.

Is this a scam?

When I first realized that date labeling wasn’t linked directly to scientifically backed safety standards but to a more subjective, voluntary, and nebulous standard of “freshness,” I wondered if it was … well, kind of a scam. After all, customers don’t benefit from throwing out foods; grocers lose money; farmers miss out on possible sources of revenue. The only people who could benefit are the producers, and I could imagine an unscrupulous manufacturer shortening the date on their food so that people will sigh, throw out a half-eaten package that has “expired,” and go buy some more.

I asked Emily Broad Leib, the director of the Harvard Law School Food and Policy Clinic and lead author of the 2013 study, about this. She laughed and said I’m not the only one to wonder if we’re just getting played.

But, she said, manufacturers would say “there is a legitimate reason on their part, which is that they want you to eat things when they taste the absolute best.” The methods by which they determine that date can vary; a big manufacturer might run a focus group with consumers to determine the date, while a small producer may just hazard a guesstimate. But importantly, the freshness date almost never corresponds to the food’s safety — to whether or not it could make you sick.

Suppose you buy a particular brand of yogurt, Broad Leib says, and it waits around till it’s slightly past its peak. You might decide you don’t like this brand of yogurt, and buy a different one next time. The dates are, in part, a way of “protecting the brand,” she said. Their biggest incentive is to make sure you eat the food when it tastes the way they think it should.

But that doesn’t mean that the way we buy and eat food has no part in the blame, and producers don’t have to be insidious to be part of the issue. The fact that so many of us read a “best by” label as actually saying “bad after” is partly a public education problem, and it’s one that manufacturers haven’t worked too hard to combat. “It’s in the general interest of anybody trying to sell anything to continue to perpetuate the illusion that our foods are going bad all the time,” Adler said. “We could buy half as much food.”

Adler noted that our penchant for buying more than we need and then throwing out food that’s gone slightly past its peak is rooted, at its core, in a consumer mindset. “The only way that makes sense is if your cultural value is unfettered growth and profit at all costs,” she said. “There’s no other way that it makes sense to just throw stuff out.”

In fact, she said, it’s in direct contrast to what most food cultures practice around the world. “The whole idea that mold and bacteria are to be avoided at all costs is not only antithetical to good cooking, but it’s literally not practiced” in most cultures. Salami and cheese and pickles and sauerkraut and all kinds of food come from the natural process of aging — “in most cuisines of the world, there’s not as great a distinction between new food and old food; they’re just ingredients that you’d use differently,” she said. Those traditions certainly have been retained in regions where Americans still make kimchi and half-sours and farm cheese. But we’ve absorbed over time the idea that those natural processes are bad and will make us sick. Instead, we rely on companies to tell us what food is good for us and when to get rid of it.

Adler says part of the problem may also lie with our burgeoning “food as status performance” culture, in which particular foods trend on social media, or food media coaxes us to keep buying new ingredients to make something we saw in a picture or on TikTok. “That doesn’t do a great service for anybody trying to cook what they have,” she said. “If they don’t have the ingredients for the viral thing, then whatever they do have is just going to sit there, while they go get the other ingredients.”

Our shopping culture is also at fault

The problem is bigger than individual consumers. Some states bar grocery stores from donating or selling out-of-date foods to food banks and other services designed to help those living with food insecurity. The thinking is reasonable, even altruistic: Why would we give sub-par food to the “poor”? If I wouldn’t eat “expired” food, why would I give it to others? Distributors fear legal threats if someone eats past-dated food and becomes ill (something that has rarely happened, but it’s still a looming threat).

That’s exacerbated by the way Americans shop. Think about it: How often do you see a shelf or bin or freezer in a grocery store that isn’t fully stocked to the brim? Supermarkets stock more food than they can sell, and that’s on purpose. Broad Leib told me that it’s common practice for supermarkets to plan for “shrink” — food they expect to be wasted. Shoppers in the US look askance at a shelf that isn’t fully stocked, or at a few potatoes left in the bin. “On the consumer side, you can understand,” she said. “You want to go to a store and have them have everything you want. And if you went in and they didn’t have what you want, then you’d go somewhere else.” We may not even realize it, but we’ve trained ourselves to see full crates of beets and shelves of salad dressing as a sign that the store is good, and therefore the food in it is good. Abundance indicates quality.

But that mindset naturally, even inevitably, leads to waste. In many places, if you can’t sell all your milk by the sell-by date, you have to dump it. Consumers don’t want to buy a box of Cheez-Its that only has a week left on it. Beef that “expires” in two days is not going to fly off the shelves. And if you can’t sell all your carrots, some of those carrots are going to start getting a little bendy. And many grocery stores will only sell produce that’s up to a certain aesthetic standard — no weird-looking apples or sweet potatoes from outer space, everything the same shape and size. Furthermore, if a manufacturer changes the label on their cookie packages, all the old packages will probably just be discarded to maintain uniformity.

“Most of the decisions that are made about most of the foods that we eat are made for reasons that have nothing to do with the food’s deliciousness or its healthiness or anything intrinsic to the food,” Adler said. “The leaves on vegetables wilt before the stalk on the vegetable, so it’s much easier for grocery stores to cut off the leaves at some point in processing. Otherwise you have to be sprinkling and trimming them all the time.” So the perfectly edible leaves of some vegetables may get lost in the process as well, while they could have been used to feed people.

Some businesses have cropped up to try to fix this larger-scale problem, like Misfits Market and Imperfect Foods. They form relationships with producers to rescue aesthetically “ugly” food — or at least, food we’ve been trained to think is ugly or too small or too large — and sell it to customers. They also buy food that’s approaching its label date and resell it to customers, hoping to cut down on food waste and change the way people eat. “It’s all about breaking down misconceptions,” Imperfect Foods’ associate creative director, Reilly Brock, told me by phone. “Food is not Cinderella. It’s not going to turn back into a pumpkin by midnight if it reaches the date on the label.”

But across the country, the standard practice for your average American consumer still stands. Make a big trip to the grocery store to buy your food from the glossy displays. When food expires, throw it out. Meanwhile, farmers are plowing ugly produce back into the ground or letting it rot in the field, and stores are chucking food that’s near or past its date into the garbage because there’s nowhere else they can send it.

Can we change this?

Why doesn’t the government just fix the problem?

The follow-up data to the 2013 Harvard study found that standardizing the date labeling system across the country — rather than leaving it to more local governments to address in a scattershot fashion — could be incredibly beneficial to the economy and to consumers. Enacting standardized legislation, it estimates, could prove to be an economic value of about $1.8 billion to the US. What’s more, an estimated 398,000 tons of food waste would be diverted to actually feed people, instead of sitting in landfills.

But fixing it has proven harder. Since the 1970s, Congress has periodically introduced legislation to modernize and standardize the system, in various forms. But, as Broad Leib told me, it can be an uphill battle. “The last administration and Congress were fairly deregulatory,” she pointed out. In the years since the 2013 study, many states have passed laws to try to standardize their own dates, even if they don’t align with other states. While Broad Leib and her colleagues argue that businesses (particularly national ones) would benefit from trying to meet one federal standard rather than different standards in different states, the philosophical differences can still be tough to surmount. “When you’re in a government that’s deregulatory, even for a good regulation, they say, ‘Let industry handle it. They have a voluntary standard, and we don’t need to step in.’”

Furthermore, Congress just moves slowly. “They don’t have a lot of stand-alone small bills,” she said. “So the best hope that this has of getting enacted is hitching itself to a moving train. A lot of our work has been in saying, ‘Here are other bills that are moving along’” — like the US Farm Bill, or the Child Nutrition Act — “and here’s why date labeling fits in with them.”

Quite a bit has happened in the years since Broad Leib and her colleagues first published their study. Seeing the problem, two major associations (the Consumer Brands Association and the Food Marketing Institute) put together a working group to design a standard date label that would work for both businesses and consumers. “They came up with a ‘best if used by’ label for a quality date and ‘use by’ for a safety date,” Broad Leib told me. “And they got a bunch of their members to sign on to voluntarily shift to using those dates.” In other words, if a food won’t decrease in safety but might decrease in quality, the manufacturer would use the “best if used by” label; if it might become unsafe to eat, they’d use the “use by” label. That system corresponds roughly to a standard used in many other countries.

This could make the work easier for the federal government to act, she says. “If Congress wanted to act, or the FDA or USDA wanted to act, it would be very easy to say, ‘Here’s what the standard label should be. We have some data on what works for consumers. And we know that these work for industry.” But otherwise, she calls the new label standard more of a “halfway solution,” since the label still will only appear on some products.

It’s more than laws. The culture needs to change.

And until there’s a better solution, the best thing we can do is try to educate ourselves and change the way we shop for food.

Broad Leib says there would be three big components to improving the system as it stands. First, the adoption of standard labels that indicate either a freshness date or a risk date would help.

But the second part is just as important: We need a public health program to educate people about what’s safe to eat. The UK has done a series of campaigns toward that end, with the slogan “Look, Smell, Taste, Don’t Waste,” in which it partnered with industry to help people understand when to keep their food and when to toss it.

The third component would be changing the way we allow food to be donated and distributed through food banks and other means. That requires a shift in how we think. If everyone is eating food past its “freshness” date — understanding that the food is perfectly safe but may not be at its absolute peak condition — then there will be less hesitancy about giving that food away, and less fear about the possibility of facing legal repercussions. That could have a huge impact on hunger and food insecurity in the US. “If everyone acknowledges that those foods are fine to eat, and everyone’s eating them, it’s not like, ‘Past-dated food is only for people who can’t afford food,’” Broad Leib said. “No, we should all be eating that.”

But that means we each need to rethink how we interact with food. We need to start trusting our senses to tell us if food is edible. “Use your sense organs,” Adler said. “We have them so that we can figure out whether things in the world are going to kill us, so we can make sure we’re not going to poison ourselves and die — and it’s even worth doing when you suspect something is bad, because feeling your body’s response is so reassuring.”

We need to ask for more clear labels, advocate for better legislation, and talk to one another about what labels really mean. And we need to move closer to food again, thinking of it less as a packaged consumer product and more as something natural that nourishes us as humans.

And in my case, that means I’m going to start sniffing what’s in my refrigerator before I chuck it — and maybe even turning it into lunch.

Source: Vox

How We Can Reduce Food Waste and Promote Healthy Eating

Marianne Stein wrote . . . . . . . . .

Food waste and obesity are major problems in developed countries. They are both caused by an overabundance of food, but strategies to reduce one can inadvertently increase the other. A broader perspective can help identify ways to limit food waste while also promoting healthy nutrition, two University of Illinois researchers suggest.

“You can reduce food waste by obtaining less or eating more. Our concern was that if people are reducing waste by eating more, what does that mean for nutrition? And how do we think about these tradeoffs in a way that promotes both good nutrition outcomes and good food waste outcomes? Public policies have generally focused on either obesity or food waste, but rarely considered them together, says Brenna Ellison, associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics (ACE) at U of I.

Ellison and Melissa Pflugh Prescott, assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition (FSHN) at U of I, discuss a systems approach to addressing food waste and nutrition in a new paper, published in Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

Food waste refers to the loss of edible food that is not consumed for various reasons. It occurs at all levels of the supply chain, from farm to transportation, processing, retail, food service, and consumer levels.

Food waste is often calculated by weight or by calories, Ellison explains. If you calculate by weight, dairy products, vegetables, grain products, and fruit account for the majority of food loss. But when converted to calories, added fats and oils, grain products, and added sugars and sweeteners are the top categories for food waste. Encouraging increased consumption of those foods could have negative health consequences, she notes.

In their paper, Ellison and Prescott provide strategies for reducing food waste in a variety of settings, including food service, retail, schools, and homes.

Some restaurants and university dining halls that offer buffet-style dining have tried to limit food waste by imposing fines or offering incentives to ensure people finish the food they select. While such strategies may limit waste, they encourage overeating, the researchers say. They suggest instead using behavioral cues such as smaller plates and scoops that nudge people to select less food.

School meals are important means to improve public health and introduce children to new, healthy foods. However, plate waste is a persistent problem in school lunch settings. Schools can use salad bars to encourage students to try new items, but that causes pre-plate waste because some items are not selected. COVID-19 modifications pose additional challenges to safe strategies for food recovery, but there are still viable options, Prescott states.

“For example, schools can take items like whole apples or unopened cartons of milk and recycle them. They can reuse them in future meals, making sure they are following food safety protocols. Or they can donate them to food pantries and other nonprofit organizations, or create backpack programs where they can send some of those items home with students who may be struggling with food insecurity. There are certainly ways to do this safely,” she says.

The researchers note that households are responsible for some of the costliest food waste, because they are at the end of the supply chain. Consumers throw away food for various reasons, such as food safety concerns, desire to eat fresh food, and poor food management.

Choosing more processed food could reduce waste but is not desirable from a health perspective. Learning strategies for better meal planning and using a list for grocery shopping are better ways to accomplish both waste reduction and improved nutrition goals, Ellison says.

“We know that even if you try to plan meals, it can be hard to follow through. It’s important to be realistic about planning. For example, if you know that you’re likely to order take out one or two nights a week, then plan for that. Don’t buy food you won’t need,” she notes.

The researchers also suggest ways to encourage good nutrition through small changes. “If you have young kids, you can try frozen vegetables. You can take a little bit out at a time and do some testing with your children; you won’t have a whole package that might go to waste,” Ellison says.

Better cooking skills are also important, Prescott states.

“Cooking is a win-win in terms of promoting health and reducing food waste. There is evidence that links cooking and improved diet quality. And people who cook might over time become more skilled at repurposing leftovers, and being more creative with foods that are about to go to waste,” she says. “Freezing leftovers for future meals is also a helpful strategy, if you have freezer space.”

Prescott notes that some of these strategies may be difficult for families that lack adequate equipment for cooking, storing, and freezing. She and Ellison are working to develop a cooking education curriculum primarily addressing the challenges facing low-income households who may have limited resources available.

The two researchers are also planning a study on school nutrition aiming to identify behavioral nudges to increase fruit and vegetable consumption while reducing waste, and a project focusing on safety issues of food recovery in schools.

Source: University of Illinoise Urbana-Champaign

Japanese Companies Go High-tech in the Battle Against Food Waste

Tetsushi Kajimoto wrote . . . . . . . . .

Japanese companies are ramping up the use of artificial intelligence and other advanced technology to reduce waste and cut costs in the pandemic, and looking to score some sustainability points along the way.

Disposing of Japan’s more than 6 million tonnes in food waste costs the world’s No.3 economy some 2 trillion yen ($19 billion) a year, government data shows. With the highest food waste per capita in Asia, the Japanese government has enacted a new law to halve such costs from 2000 levels by 2030, pushing companies to find solutions.

Convenience store chain Lawson Inc has started using AI from U.S. firm DataRobot, which estimates how much product on shelves, from onigiri rice balls to egg and tuna sandwiches, may go unsold or fall short of demand.

Lawson aims to bring down overstock by 30% in places where it has been rolled out, and wants to halve food waste at all of its stores in 2030 compared with 2018.

Disposal of food waste is the biggest cost for Lawson’s franchise owners after labour costs.

Drinks maker Suntory Beverage & Food Ltd is experimenting with another AI product from Fujitsu Ltd to try to determine if goods such as bottles of oolong tea and mineral water have been damaged in shipping.

Until now, that’s been a time-consuming human endeavour. With the new AI, Suntory hopes to gauge when a damaged box is just that, or when the contents themselves have been damaged and need to be returned.

Suntory aims to reduce the return of goods by 30-50% and cut the cost of food waste and develop a common standard system that can be shared by other food makers and shipping firms.

SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS

Japan’s notoriously fussy shoppers are showing signs of getting on board, especially as the coronavirus pandemic hits incomes.

Tatsuya Sekito launched Kuradashi, an e-commerce firm dealing in unsold foods at a discount, in 2014 after seeing massive amounts of waste from food processors while working for a Japanese trading firm in China.

The online business is now thriving due partly to a jump in demand for low-priced unsold foods as consumers became more cost conscious amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Sales grew 2.5 times last year from a year before, while the amount of food waste has doubled since the coronavirus cut off food supply chain,” Sekito told Reuters.

Kuradashi has a network of 800 companies, including Meiji Holdings Co, Kagome Co and Lotte Foods Co, who sell it a total 50,000 items including packs of instant curry, smoothies and high-quality nori.

“Japanese shoppers tend to be picky but we attract customers by offering not just a sale but a chance to donate a portion of purchases to a charity, raising awareness about social issues,” Sekito said.

Membership numbers jumped to 180,000 in 2021 from 80,000 in 2019.

Others have also joined forces with food firms in developing new technological platform to cut food waste as part of global efforts to meet sustainable development goals (SDGs).

NEC Corp is using AI that can not only analyse data such as weather, calendar and customers’ trends in estimating demand but also give reasoning behind its analysis.

NEC has deployed the technology to some major retailers and food makers, helping them reduce costs by 15%-75%.

NEC hopes to share and process data through a common platform among makers, retailers and logistics, to reduce mismatches in supply chains.

“Reducing food waste is not our ultimate goal,” said Ryoichi Morita, senior manager overseeing NEC’s digital integration.

“Eventually, we hope it can lead to resolve other business challenges such as minimizing costs, fixing labour shortages, streamlining inventory, orders and logistics.”

Source: Reuters

The Consumer Food Waste Innovation Report

Jennifer Marston wrote . . . . . . . . .

Roughly 1.3 billion tons of edible food worldwide is wasted annually each year, and experts say this number will swell to 2.1 billion tons each year by 2030. These figures have long been known in and out of the food industry, but up until recently, little had been done to curb the problem, which hits every touchpoint in the food supply chain.

Nowadays, governments, grocery retailers, industries like agriculture and grocery, tech companies, and many others are working to fight food waste at both the local and international level. In the developed world, at least, much of that focus over the last 12 months has been on the consumer kitchen, which is responsible for by far the most food waste in those regions.

This report will examine why so much food is wasted in the consumer kitchen, what new technologies and processes can be leveraged to fight that waste, and the companies working to change consumers’ relationship to both food and waste.

Report highlights include:

  • One-third of the world’s food goes to waste annually. In the U.S. and Europe, the majority of that waste happens downstream, at consumer-facing businesses and in the home.
  • Food waste at home is a three-part problem that stems from a lack of awareness about waste, inadequate information and skill sets around home cooking, and the convenience economy driving consumer behavior.
  • Grocery store shopping, current recipe formats, inconsistent date labels, and a lack of smart storage solutions for grocery purchases and restaurant leftovers are the main drivers of at-home food waste.
  • The refrigerator itself may be one of the single biggest contributors to food waste. Moving forward, appliance-makers will need to consider overhauling the appliance’s entire design to help consumers fight food waste.
  • Solutions for fighting food waste will come from a range of different players. For tech companies, areas of focus will include more smart appliances and more tech-enabled storage systems as well as meal-planning and meal-sharing apps.

Source: The Spoon

China’s Tradition of Hospitality May Need Reshaping If Food Waste is to End

mandy Zuo wrote . . . . . . . . .

“He heaves his hoe in the rice field, under the noonday sun; on to the soil of the rice field his streaming sweat beads run”

This classical Chinese poem reminding people to treasure food has been one of the first things taught to schoolchildren in China for decades. But wasted food in the world’s most populous country has become so prevalent its leader has called for national action.

President Xi Jinping wants China to treat its “shocking and distressing” amount of food waste with a sense of crisis in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, requiring a cultural shift in a population which has traditionally measured hospitality in leftovers.

Patrons of the country’s catering industry each wasted an average 11.7 per cent of their meal, according to a report co-authored by the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research under the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2018.

In large gatherings, the rate rose to 38 per cent, while students threw away a third of the contents in their school lunchboxes, it said.

Preparing or ordering more food than necessary has long been regarded as a symbol of hospitality and social standing in China, where it is common for all dishes to be shared by the table. But the prosperity of recent decades has also partly contributed to the habit of squandering, according to experts.

Zhu Qizhen, a professor at China Agricultural University, said the Chinese people traditionally valued frugality, a consequence of a long history of famine and shortages. But another deeply rooted value – of expressing hospitality by treating guests to sumptuous feasts – was behind the squandering of food.

“What is a sumptuous feast then? One important standard is the amount of leftovers,” he said.

Shanghai man Ma Linhui, 70, said he shared his father’s attitude that treating guests well was a matter of “face”, the Chinese concept of respect and honour. “We didn’t have much to eat when I was young. But we would put all the food we had saved for months on the table when a guest visited, otherwise we would lose face,” he said.

“Even today, when I cook for my daughter and grandchildren, I can’t help but feel awkward if they eat up all the food. It makes me feel I haven’t prepared enough for them.”

China’s phenomenal economic growth and the bumper harvests of recent decades have taken Chinese society from food shortages to surpluses and it is against this backdrop that frugality is today often equated with stinginess, according to Zhu.

“Just see how farmers have been struggling to sell their produce. On the other side, we’ve been encouraging consumption to stimulate the economy. This, to some extent, is also encouraging waste,” he added.

Jing Linbo, deputy chairman of the China Cuisine Association, said a survey by his organisation had found business functions and banquets held by government officials using public funds were responsible for 80 per cent of wasted food in restaurants. “People are especially generous when spending public money,” he said.

A crackdown on the squandering of public funds was part of the Chinese Communist Party’s anti-corruption drive which began in late 2012 with the introduction of eight disciplinary rules for all its members.

That was followed in early 2013 with a nationwide campaign called “empty plate” which aimed to eliminate food waste. Since then, consumption at the public’s expense has dropped, but the wastage has not improved much, according to Jing.

Restaurants were failing in their responsibilities to remind diners to save food, he said, while some were encouraging bigger orders, leading to more waste. “It is definitely not an issue to be rectified in a short period. Cultivating a good consumption culture needs a long-term effort.”

The effort sparked by Xi’s call for a national belt-tightening has begun, with local governments issuing a range of detailed measures to curb food consumption. Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the coronavirus emerged last year, was among the first to roll out a new ordering mode for its restaurants.

Groups of 10 diners are now expected to order for nine – only adding more food to the table later, if it is actually required. Groups of two or three are to be offered half portions or smaller shares and all restaurants should provide takeaway boxes for leftovers, according to a notice from the Wuhan Catering Association on Tuesday.

Source: SCMP