COLUMBUS, Ohio — Inside many trash cans lies food that probably could have been eaten or composted.
Food waste accounts for about 22 percent of what’s in every landfill, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. What’s more surprising is where most of that food waste is coming from, said Brian Roe, a professor of agricultural economics in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) at The Ohio State University.
Don’t think restaurants, think: closer to home - as in, your kitchen.
“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, they waste so much food at restaurants and supermarkets. I’ve seen the dumpsters at the back of the stores. It’s terrible.’ In truth, it’s consumers in households where most of the food waste occurs,” Roe said.
Ohio State’s Food Waste Collaborative Conference on Sept. 15 will focus on the latest innovations that reduce consumer food waste, as well as the policy trends that help or hinder those efforts. Roe is one of the organizers of the conference and will be a panelist at the Summit on Food Waste in New York City on Sept. 13. The summit is sponsored by Food Tank, a nonprofit organization that works to alleviate hunger, obesity and poverty by creating a network of connections and information.
Roe helped form and currently leads the Ohio State Food Waste Collaborative, a collection of researchers, practitioners and students working together to promote the reduction and redirection of food waste. His research on food waste examines consumer behavior and attitudes about discarding food.
Food can go bad at some point, and we can’t always eat everything we slide onto our plates. Still, there are ways that we can reduce what’s thrown out and use what would have ordinarily gone to a landfill, turning it into compost or processing it and using the resulting methane as energy, Roe said.
Contributing to the problem of food waste are food expiration labels that can be misleading, Roe said. Many foods that have a sell-by or use-by date are often still good long after the date, he said. Sell-by and use-by dates typically have more to do with a store’s expectation that the product may not taste as good after the dates expire, but the food is not necessarily hazardous to eat past the date, he said.
“The date labels are largely about quality and not about safety,” Roe said.
For example, milk that’s been pasteurized can sit in a refrigerator for far longer than the date listed on the carton, assuming there’s been no contamination, such as if someone was sick and drank directly from the carton, Roe said. In time, the milk will turn sour, but even sour milk, as long as it has been properly stored in a refrigerator, won’t make you sick, he said.
Dennis R. Heldman, a CFAES professor of food engineering and member of the Food Waste Collaborative, is studying the use of an indicator that would be attached to the containers of perishable foods to determine their shelf life. The indicator would gradually change color during storage and distribution of a food or beverage. So a change in color, say, from blue to red, would tell consumers that the shelf life of a carton of milk has passed.
“We’ve had milk in the refrigerator for 40 days, and it was still acceptable to drink. This confirms that sell-by or use-by dates encourage the consumer to waste acceptable product,” Heldman said.
In emphasizing the significance of using rather than throwing out food, Heldman points to a statistic on food waste across the globe. One third of the food harvested worldwide is wasted before it is eaten – enough food to feed 2 billion people a year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. And between 2025 and 2050, the world’s population is expected to grow by 1 billion people.
“So we can feed the increase in population just by reducing or eliminating waste,” Heldman said.
When food is tossed out, the energy and water used to produce then later cook that food also is squandered, Heldman said.
Another factor contributing to the large amount of food waste is the popular misconception that a donor will be liable for any food donations that might cause harm to someone after eating it, Roe said. A federal law passed in 1996 protects restaurants, caterers and even individuals donating food to a nonprofit from any liability.
Roe and others in Ohio State’s Food Waste Collaborative are developing an app that will help people measure the amount of food they waste at home with the hope that knowing how much food people toss out could discourage them from doing so.
But, Roe pointed out, preventing household food waste requires proper planning to buy and cook the right quantities of food and to eat the leftovers, and “for a lot of people with time pressures, that’s not high on the list of priorities.”
The theme of Ohio State’s Sept. 15 Food Waste Collaborate Conference is “Food Waste Policy: Present and Future.” It will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Nationwide and Ohio Farm Bureau 4-H Center, 2201 Fred Taylor Drive, on the university’s Columbus campus. For more information, visit