THE PERFECT STORM: A history of food waste

Saving food and preventing waste are crucial matters that have confronted humankind for millennia. Failure to store or preserve food in times of plenty could result in hunger, famine, and death in times of want. Virtually every religion forbade wasting food, and saving food was a value built into the culture of communities around the world (see Chapter 3 in this book). Family culinary traditions, often passed down from mother to daughter, stressed the importance of wasting nothing and finding uses for every bit of edible food (see Broomfield 2007 for Victorian history and food preservation). Cookery manuscripts and later cookbooks offered adaptations of traditional uses to prevent waste, and recipes for leftovers. Notable examples of such a cookbook, identified by Evans et al. (2012), are Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) and Mrs Beeton’s Cookery Book (1899). Vegetable peel, bones, and less desirable animal products were used to make stocks and soups, or fed to livestock. Roots, leaves, feathers, bones, fish scales, and spoiled food were composted for use as fertilizer (Wilson 1991).

Beyond household culinary traditions of using peel and bones, food processors also contributed to food waste prevention. Some food processors considered by-products from processing as resources rather than waste (Bruttini 1923) and this perspective was exemplified by Chicago meatpacker Philip Armour. Armour hired chemists to exploit the inedible parts of cattle and hog carcasses. Fie noted that the goal of a slaughter facility, for instance, was to convert every part of the animal into a saleable product. This meant that the “waste” and leftovers from slaughter were transformed into gelatin, soap, glue, glycerin, grease, and fertilizer. Armour declared that waste was criminal and when asked which parts of the pig he used in his packing plants, he reputedly shot back, “Everything but the squeal” (Leech and Carroll 1938).

Reducing food waste continued as a concern among food processors throughout the twentieth century (Spooner 1918; Bruttini 1923; Benedict and Farr 1931). However, the issue received wider public attention mainly in periods of shortages and rationing, such as during the First and Second World Wars. Governments of nations affected by war launched propaganda campaigns, with newspaper articles, posters, and radio programs encouraging citizens not to waste food, which was desperately needed to support the war effort. War was declared on food waste (Harrison 1918) with messages equating the wasting of food to a lack of morality. Wasting food was declared a “sin,” while preventing food waste was patriotic. Numerous slogans such as “Waste Not, Want Not,” “Waste of Food Helps the Enemy Greatly,” and “Save the Food of the Nation” were printed on flyers and posters, and pamphlets promised that “Food Will Win the War!” (Chambers and Mamburg 1918). When the wars were over, the anti-food waste campaigns ended.

Contributors to food waste

Throughout the twentieth century, food prices declined as mechanization increased crop yields, improved freight transportation, and fostered the rise of supermarkets. Simultaneous with the decrease in food prices was the increase in wages for many urban workers. The result of lower food costs and higher take-home pay was that families spent a smaller proportion of their income on food. In 1901, US urban households spent an estimated 42.5 percent of their take-home pay on food. By the twenty-first century, this had dropped to about 6.6 percent for food consumed at home (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2006; Sturm and An 2014). Similar patterns were seen in other affluent countries: By the twentieth-first century, UK households expended about 8.2 percent of their income on food, while French and South Korean households spent about 13.5 percent (Plumer 2015; Gray 2016).

Lower prices and higher wages encouraged waste throughout food systems. Farmers unable to profit by harvesting food, fed it to animals or ploughed it under (Howard and Wad 1931; Shover 1965; Rao 2015). Supermarket chains developed stringent standards for the produce they bought: fruits and vegetables had to be well-shaped, uniformly sized, and properly coloured, among other specifications; items that did not measure up to these standards were trashed. Supermarket managers found it easier to overstock items than to risk disappointing customers, but items that could not be sold when the items were at their peak ended up in the dump. Food manufacturers and retailers found it more efficient to discard surplus or outdated supplies than to try to salvage them (Stuart 2009). Restaurateurs supersized their offerings and plate waste surged with larger servings and larger plates used in restaurants and restaurant chains (Herzka and Booth 1981; Kosseva and Webb 2013). Consumers bought larger packages or two-for-one sales in supermarkets, and in some cases also discarded wholesome food due to aesthetic factors (Van Garde and Woodburn 1987).

By the 1950s, convenience became a major selling point for processed foods. “Instant” mixes, heat-and-eat frozen meals, and, later, microwaveable entrees could be served in a matter of minutes. Cafeterias, commissaries, buffets, snack bars, lunch counters, kiosks, coffee shops, canteens, and fast food chains flourished. By the early twenty-first century, consumers in some countries were spending almost half of their food budgets on meals prepared outside the home (Jamrisko 2015). Purchase of food prepared outside the home and convenience food for the home, contributed to the loss of traditional cooking skills once handed down through generations (Jaffe and Gertler 2006; Aschemann-Witzel 2018). There was little incentive for consumers to be concerned about leftovers in restaurants or food waste at home.

At home, kitchen refrigerators and pantries got bigger as the century progressed (Rees 2013). Ironically, overstocked refrigerators and brimful pantries contributed to waste as items were pushed to the back of a crowded fridge or pantry. In time, they soured or spoiled and ended up in the trash. Another invention, the in-sink garbage disposal solved the problem of unsightly, smelly, unsanitary kitchen garbage, but was just a convenient way of delivering scraps to the dump. As critics pointed out, they also wasted a lot of water, and fats, oils, and grease ground down garbage disposals occasionally clogged household drains and could cause “fatbergs,” large masses of congealed cooking fat that blocked sewage systems (Hester 2018).

Another innovation is modem food packaging. Food packaging evolved as a way to prevent spoilage. Waxed paper, foil, cans, bottles, and jars preserved and conserved food, prolonging its useful life. Packaged food products enabled long-distance food supply chains as it was possible to ship food safely over long distances from processor to retailer to consumer. Constant innovation in plastic containers and wraps prolonged shelf life still further. Shoppers, however, could not see, smell, or touch the contents of the package, and only after opening it could spoilage be discovered. To help grocers and shoppers determine whether packaged products were still fresh and wholesome, processors began labeling packaged foods and beverages with a date indicating when the product had been packed, or when it was recommended that the food be consumed by, or when its shelf life would expire. Some processors began labeling milk products with a date in the 1930s. Marks & Spencer, a British department-store chain, began doing so in the 1950s. In the late 1960s, Kroger, an American supermarket chain, required sell by dates on cartons of milk and some other dairy products. These were intended to indicate when these products would begin to spoil or smell “off’ (Newsome et al. 2014).

With “sell-by” or “best if used by” dates clearly marked, retailers and consumers could discard foods after the date had expired. But there was no consistency in the labeling: Food companies employed a variety of labeling systems and terminology, and by the 1970s there were more than 50 different versions of product dating, causing confusion among retailers and consumers (Salisbury' 2016). Consumers who were (and remain) confused or obsessed with quality tend to discard perfectly edible food when the labeling shows it to be “outdated.” A 2009 UK survey, for example, found that

  • 53 per cent of British consumers did not eat fruit or vegetables that exceeded the ‘best before’ date, 56 per cent did not eat bread or cake; and 21 per cent never even ‘take a risk’ with food close to its date.
  • (Shields 2009)

A 2011 report revealed that about 450,000 tonnes of food were thrown away because it had passed a “best before” date (Lyndhurst 2011). Had the food been stored properly, it would have been perfectly safe to eat up to and after this date. In addition, the report estimated that 380,000 tonnes of food were tossed out because it had passed a “use by” date — waste that could have been avoided had the food been cooked or frozen before that date (Lyndhurst 2011). Others have linked these behaviors to concerns around food safety, such as a 2017 study in Scotland showing that more than 50 percent of the country’s population threw away perfectly edible food that was approaching or past its “best before” date, and the reason why 62 percent did so was the fear of “getting ill” (Luiza et al. 2017). Confusion around terminologies abound as a 2014 Belgian study found that 30 percent of those surveyed did not know the difference between “use by” and “best before” labels (Boxstael et al. 2014). This finding is further supported by a 2015 European Commission study, which found that fewer than half of those surveyed knew the meaning of “best before” labels (Shepherd 2016).

Concern with food safety contributes to increased waste and is often followed with the popular phrase, “When in doubt, throw it out,” becoming the rule of the day beginning in the 1950s (Bracken 1960). Discarded food could be easily replaced, so rather than worry about off-flavors and potential food poisoning, it was easier for businesses and consumers to toss out discolored or bruised produce and packaged foods passed their prime. The following section explores the waste infrastructures enabling such ease of dumping food.

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