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Important Research On Food Waste Unveiled At New York Produce Show: Cornell’s Brad Rickard Dives Into The Question Of Whether Zero Food Waste Is Good For Overall Health (Or The Produce Industry)

Certain individuals are so consistently engaged in interesting work that you just know you want them. That is the way it is with Brad Rickard… when we heard he had an interesting research project to discuss we signed him up immediately and asked Pundit investigator and special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Bradley Rickard
Associate Professor of
Applied Economics and Management at
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York

Q: Seasoned New York and London Produce Show attendees are quite familiar with your riveting and meticulously layered, science-based seminars, which always stimulate debate and thought-provoking ideas:

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Your upcoming talk abstract intimates a further extension and deeper dive into the ground-breaking research you’ve undertaken related to issues of food waste, date labels and produce consumption.

A: In a recent op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, University of Minnesota Professor Marc Bellemare highlights his study that as food becomes an increasingly small fraction of a household’s budget, wasting food becomes cheaper relative to other expenditures, and that the optimal amount of food waste is not zero. In addition, our research suggests that different policies designed to reduce food waste may affect food consumption differently across food groups.

Q: In what ways exactly?

A: Comparing results from a series of lab experiments and surveys on food waste to average rates of food waste in the United States, we find evidence that adoption of some date-labeling approaches have the capacity to lead to increased intake of fruits and vegetables and better overall nutritional outcomes.

Q: You’ve proven date-labeling approaches can be quite influential in consumer purchasing decisions of produce items as well as in other product categories, according to fascinating research you’ve presented in the past… So your most recent study results could provide important guidance to industry executives on labeling and marketing strategies?

A: Recently I gave a similar presentation out at the University of Rhode Island, more for an academic audience but its real-world applications are a great fit for the New York Produce Show. We’re still involved in a fairly big USDA grant that looks at food waste, mostly among households, consumers wasting food at home, and decisions they’re making about wasting food. This is not targeting food waste from farmers in the field or in retail. It also has to do with different strategies, initiatives and government proposals people are thinking about to reduce food waste across different types of food.

Q: Does this involve consumer shopping patterns and purchase decisions?

A: We’ve set up our data collection where people have already purchased the food, and it’s now in their home, in the pantry or fridge, and they’re making food choices. It’s really less about purchasing food and more about using food. They have food in front of them and they are choosing whether to use it, waste it, use part of it… and what factors go into making that decision.

What type of food is it, is it packaged, is it processed, does it have food safety concerns, and is the quality important? We look at different foods across different product categories; for instance, we look at packaged salad greens and table grapes, tomato sauce in the jar, ham, dairy products, orange juice…

Q: How do you decide what products to include and analyze?

A: We’ve done different surveys with different products, but generally speaking, we try to pick products that fall into a range of food categories. If you think of the food pyramid, with meat, dairy, grains, fruits and vegetables, etc., we always try to have a mix of products from those food groups.

In one survey, we have rice, another we have bread, and sometimes a breakfast cereal to represent carbs, for example. We’ve looked at different packaged fruits and vegetables. As you know, packaged fruits and vegetables are much more common in Europe than in the U.S., but more and more produce is sold in some type of package with a UPC code and date label with expiration or use-by date, use-before date, etc. We do surveys with meat and have spent quite a bit of time looking at dairy products, eggs as well. It could be fresh milk, fluid milk, cheese, or yogurt … products that have information on them guiding consumers when to eat the food. Some sort of a date label.

Q: So this continues from the research you’ve done in the past…

A: This research is an extension of that.

That’s the other part. We have different food products, and then we use different label treatments, sometimes language — best-by, or use-by — and sometimes we put little bio sensors on the products to show freshness of the product. It’s not as common in the U.S. Are you familiar with these?

Q: Yes. In fact, I remember a product launch of sensors on packaged pears at a PMA Show many years ago, where the package would change color to indicate its level of freshness, but I don’t think it really took off. Retailers expressed lukewarm reception to the idea, hesitant to risk such consumer package alerts lining their shelves.

A: We’re also finding consumers a little apprehensive about this technology, and they sort through those packages more so than the packages that have the text, or the best-by or use-by label. We did include biosensors in our study as another way to communicate product freshness, product quality and product safety.

Q: But your direction or objective has changed now from your past studies?

A: We’ve done little pieces of this, and we’re even borrowing some of our data we’ve collected earlier on consumer response to different date labels. But the idea here is different. The question is slightly different. Now we’re less concerned about food waste per se. A lot of people who study food waste look for a label or solution to help society reduce food waste in general… there is too much quantity, or dollars, or calories of food being wasted depending what your objective is.

If you’re worried about food insecurity, you could be worried about all the calories wasted; if you’re more concerned about the environment, you may be concerned about the tons of food being sent to landfills. Here we’re taking it one step forward: If we’re wasting food, and if governments and food companies adopt one strategy versus another, how does it affect the food being wasted or consumed? And then, more importantly, we’re breaking that food into calories and as a final step into nutrients.

How are we wasting food across these different food categories? Essentially, we’re wasting certain macro- and micro-nutrients. And the truth is some of those nutrients are better for us than others.

Q: Can you define macro- and micro-nutrients?

A: Macro nutrients would be fats, carbs, fiber, protein, and then, within fats, you can think of saturated and unsaturated fats. A lot of people think of cholesterol as a macro nutrient. And micro nutrients would be various vitamins and minerals, Vitamin A, C, E, iron calcium, zinc… The fact is a lot of food is a combination of these macro- and micro-nutrients.

Q: And fruits and vegetables fare exceedingly well in those macro and micro combinations… so there could be advantages to selectively focus on where to reduce food waste?

A: Fruits and vegetables are especially rich in fiber, which is notable since a lot of other foods don’t have fiber. They are naturally low in fats, they do contain carbs, but are rich in many of the micro-nutrients. With current food patterns in the U.S., we are actually wasting a lot of food heavy in fats, in sugar and carbs. I’ll provide statistics at the Show. Food waste is a problem, it’s an issue, but when you look at nutrient content, generally speaking we’re wasting food disproportionately towards the less healthy items.

Q: That could be viewed as a positive!

A: That’s what I want to point out. Food waste is an issue, but at least we’re wasting the foods that are not as good for you. You transform the whole discussion of food waste goals when you break down the numbers in that way… it’s really opening a new paradigm in food waste solutions.

If you were to have some policy change of information to influence food waste, there are different ways to do that.

Q: So, it is critical to ask if you adopt these different strategies, what kinds of effects will they have on food consumption and more importantly on nutrient consumption?

A: I try to motivate it this way. One solution people propose is to move to zero food waste. Professor Bellemare makes a really good case why a zero food waste policy may not be the optimal policy. He suggested it’s not optimal because it might not be economically efficient. There are arguments that having some amount of food waste, maybe not the amount we have today, could be economically efficient, and he makes a convincing case for that. There could be some benefits that outweigh the costs of having that food waste.

I’m expanding on that, showing there may also be nutritional health reasons why some food waste may be good. If we were to reduce food waste across the board for all kinds of food, it could be the case systematic cuts on all categories may end up steering society toward making less healthy food consumption choices. If consumers are disproportionally wasting foods higher in fat and simple carbs that are less healthy to begin with, you may become complicit in encouraging more consumption of those foods.

Q: Was the impetus of your study to address that irony? What was your hypothesis going in? Could you walk us through the research?

A: We’re trying to show that some of these date-labeling strategies and types of communications may steer people toward wasting less of the foods that are good for you. If your objective is to reduce tons of food waste, then maybe a zero policy might do that. If you’re also trying to be mindful some food waste is ok, and that other food waste might be better to target, it’s a policy decision that may have two objectives.

What we’re finding, through our consumer surveys, is that food manufacturers can influence types of food waste through date labeling.

Q: How?

A: When we show respondents packages with a use-by label and best-by label on the same package, it provides people more information and more clarity to decide if they should use the food or throw it away. For instance, a package could say best by five days from now, and also use by 10 days from now, i.e., the quality is there for five days, and safety is there for 10 days. We think giving consumers this type of information in this format alleviates confusion.

When consumers are uncertain, and they see a best-by or a use-by, they’re not sure what it means, and the easy default is to throw the food out. We’ve tried this with bio sensors, and with use-by and best-by labels on the same package. It doesn’t necessarily reduce food waste as much as some other initiatives, but it’s an effective targeted approach.

Q: What are the other initiatives you’re referencing?

A: The best example is when the government mandates for zero food waste. The State of Vermont is getting closer to it, finding ways commercially and for households to reduce food waste and have a point in the future where you get to zero food waste. It’s difficult to do and expensive, especially in rural areas, where you need to go in to communities to collect food scraps… And it’s ultimately hard to get to this zero food waste.

Q: The logistics can often be prohibitive or not economically viable from a business sustainability standpoint. I’ve learned of these challenges over many years of interviewing progressive retailers, who we’ve honored with our annual Produce Business Retail Sustainability Award

A: More practically would be initiatives to harmonize information we put on food to communicate food quality and food safety –to harmonize all date labels to say when the food expires, or all saying use-by or best-by, or bio sensor wheels to indicate freshness. Currently in the retail environment, you’ll see a great mixture of these so-called date labels on food. And there’s quite a bit of sentiment these date labels are creating confusion with consumers.

The initiative we are most interested in is putting best-by and use-by on the same products. This is not terribly common in the U.S., but more common in other parts of the world. You may see it on deli meat, where you have the price on the front, and some retailers will list one date when it is packaged suggesting when to safely use-by and another to suggest food quality best-by.

Q: Did your study results indicate a significant difference in food waste based on the double label approach?

A: When we do surveys with that approach, the total food waste doesn’t fall overall, but it falls disproportionally with the healthy diet; the amount of waste of fruits and vegetables and dairy products goes down the most when people have more information.

If your objective is just to reduce food waste across all food categories, the language use-by will be the most effective. However, it won’t lead to an increase in consumption of fruits and vegetables.

If you harmonize labels with best-by, it will reduce food waste in a fairly substantial way, but it won’t reduce food waste of fruits and vegetables to the same degree as using both best-by and use-by on the same package.

Q: Could you provide statistics and further perspective on the relative impacts? Do you have a sliding scale of food waste Pros and Cons from a health and nutrition aspect?

A: At the Show, I can provide a rank ordering of types of labeling and how each relates to quantity of food waste overall versus the most healthy tradeoff.

If you’re interested in reducing food waste quantity, think about moving toward a zero food waste program or using language ‘use-by’ on packages all by itself. Those are initiatives that lead to less food waste across the board, both healthy and unhealthy food products, but disproportionally increase consumption of unhealthier food items.

If you follow the date-label strategy of best-by on the package, and, even better yet, best-by and use-by together, it won’t decrease food waste as much, but it is going to decrease food waste deemed healthier; notably fruits and vegetables.

Q: In the big picture, what numbers are we talking about here? Could you break down food waste by categories? How big a slice is produce in the food waste pie?

A: When you look at categories, meat is highest for food waste. But the numbers are different if you’re interested in quantity, value, and calories.

Q: Excellent point. How do things change in each of those instances? I imagine you’ll see dramatic differences…

A: If you look at dollars of waste, meat is the biggest — $50 billion of meat products. Fruit is $20 billion, and vegetables account for $30 billion. Dairy is $30 billion. But if you look at calories, added sugar is $6 billion of food waste, and added fat is $13 billion. If you look at calories, added fats are 30 percent of total food waste, and added sugar is 20 percent of wasted calories.

To put things in perspective, added sugar and added fats together account for 12 percent of total dollars of food wasted, and fruits and vegetables are about 30 percent of total dollars of food wasted.

Q: Fruits and vegetables must shine when you pull out the numbers for calories…

A: When you go to calories, added sugar and added fat is 50 percent of wasted calories. Fruits and vegetables are only 6 percent to 7 percent of wasted calories, very different in terms of value when looking at calories. You’ll see from those numbers, the calories we waste is in the form of added fat and sugar. Any effort to reduce food waste in some capacity will lead to some consumption deemed unhealthy.

Q: Going back to your research, your results indicate a two-fold use-by/best-by labeling approach on packages encourages less produce waste. Have you accounted for variances in demographics, income levels, and also the commodity, what size packaging, etc.?

Perhaps when it comes to fresh produce as opposed to a jar of tomato sauce, consumers just look at the bagged salad leaves through the clear package, and if the leaves are brown and wilted, they throw it away regardless of the date label. After all, the reality is that increasing produce consumption encompasses many variables…

A: These are all points of discussion. For instance, it’s not clear to me why when people see a certain label it impacts their consumption. I hope this seminar will be the start of conversation. What are the business implications for industry executives on the retail and supply side? Different types of legislation to reduce food waste will mandate the way manufacturers label products, and those products will enter the retail space, influencing the decisions consumers make in the store, and from our latest research, the ones they make in their home. Retailers recognize this is an issue and will think of situations where products will be labeled for more harmonization in their stores.

I’ll be looking for feedback from the audience at the Show. Do they expect consumers to behave in the ways we found in our work?

Q: With the diversity of attendees at the Show, I imagine you’ll get a range of feedback.

A: When we do consumer surveys, we collect information on demographics and describe the type of shopper. We’ve been talking average index, some act in a stronger or weaker way; it depends on a lot of things, how connected a consumer is with food in general, in buying and preparing food… a lot can be adjusted to account for where the consumer lives in the country, the education level, how old they are…etc. It could boil down to how connected the consumer is to the food, to their investment in preparing the food, in reading the labels on the food… But I’m trying to average out these effects.

What our research suggests is that initiatives being discussed in Congress and within different states will impact food waste in different ways. What leads to the greatest reduction in food waste might not lead to the healthiest consumption. Reducing food waste is important, but one initiative can change the composition of what we eat, even if it doesn’t reduce food waste as much as it leads to a more healthy food base. There is this trade off, and policy people and business people must be mindful.

I haven’t dug into the implications for food retailers, as much as for manufacturers and consumers.

It will be interesting to engage retailers, the middle link in my story of looking at food waste initiatives and what is best for society.

Q: While your research spans a wide scope, the issues of food waste are often an interconnected factor in some way. Your London Produce Show topic last June focused on consumer shopping patterns of packaged fruits and vegetables at retail, where you ran statistical models to understand who’s buying what, and why. At the end you touched on implications related to food waste, foreshadowing your New York Produce Show talk.

A: In London, most of the discussion was regarding the patterns and breadth of purchase in packaged fruits and vegetables, and looking at how people make decisions and how the socio economic groups are changing in that regard. I connected the discussion back to this food waste issue, which is a nice segue to my NY Show talk. This research very much feeds into that.

Q: Where will your future research lead you? Will you delve in further with this research model or branch out to a different area?

A: I want to take on different food products to see if we can confirm our initial results. Right now we have a subset of five to ten products. I’d like to expand the study to do more surveys with consumers and see if the results for packaged salad greens and table grapes also hold for packaged apples and other produce items, and similarly in other product categories. There is a broad range of products, and we want to be sure not to extrapolate.

Congress is having these discussions now about food waste. When you make a decision about solving one problem, there are related problems and unintended consequences. Food waste is one problem and unhealthy eating habits are another. Are there solutions to fixing one problem while also fixing the other?


Two big issues distort the effort to make optimal public policy.

One is the penchant for using loaded language.The very term “waste” is not neutral. It implies a negative and that one should stop doing it. If we say that a child is wasting his time rather than doing his homework or exercising or learning to play a musical instrument, we mean he should stop wasting his time and do something productive.

But such terminology is inappropriately applied to the food chain. If a farmer leaves some of his crop in the field, in almost every instance, it is because the cost of harvesting that food is more than the food is worth. Once in this Pundit’s early days in the business, we had a growing operation in Puerto Rico that grew honeydew melons, peppers, tomatoes, etc. Normally we might do two pickings, which is go through the field twice during the season to harvest the peppers. But, one year, there was a bad freeze in Florida and the price of pepper zoomed, so we were doing seventh and eighth pickings and harvesting tiny little bell peppers that, under normal circumstances, we would have left in the field.

Since people always are eating, to say it is not worth harvesting is to say that we can get peppers cheaper some other place. So harvesting peppers below market prices – or anything else that doesn’t make economic sense — is exactly the same as “wasting” money.

Now there is a biblical admonition for a farmer to allow the gleaning of his fields by the poor. Food safety rules have made this problematic, but, even aside from that, the disjunction between where poor people live and where crops are grown, makes this not very useful. Typically, the cost of the actual produce item in the field or on the tree is substantially less than the cost to pick, pack, transport and market the item. So, to avoid “waste” of produce, one would be wasting fuel, labor, all the things that go into the cost of picking, packing, shipping, etc.

Such conflicts are obvious on the business side of the produce industry, but no less real in the home, with consumers.

The second big problem when looking to create public policy on matters such as this is to focus on one thing and nothing else.We see this on issues such as health care. If one focuses solely on the actual medical bill, one may be misled. If the expense of medical care slows down appointments, for example, it might increase human suffering, or make care less effective or increase the cost for families and other caregivers to go to multiple appointments.

For the fresh produce industry, this can be of great concern. If the only issue is food waste, consumers might well be better off buying only frozen or canned product. These are less likely to spoil. But surely that is not the end of the story. The whole idea of capitalism is that human happiness can be enhanced by free exchange. So, if we have a hammer and you have a sickle, but we really enjoy sickles and you are just in love with hammers, an exchange can be made and the world is wealthier and more prosperous, even though material conditions have not changed.

So, if we have some fresh vegetables that we are planning to use this weekend, but Professor Rickard surprises us with an invitation to hang out at his place up in Ithaca this weekend, we will go and let the food go to waste. The happiness we would derive from sharing friendship and collegiality with the good professor, his wife and children is far more valuable to us than some ageing lettuce.

So, this single-handed focus on food waste is rather bizarre. Toward what purpose? Shouldn’t the goal be maximizing human happiness? And what evidence is there that reducing food waste is an important component of that? And isn’t the single best way of maximizing human happiness based on the price mechanism? Doesn’t that tell us what we really value?

Even if one values helping the poor above all else, precisely what evidence do we have that if people stopped buying fresh and only bought canned and frozen — thus reducing food waste substantially – what reason do we have to think that poor people would eat better? To the extent that poor people are not able to buy food now, the reduction of food waste by consumers would mean that they would buy less, but because production is not limited by productive capacity, it is limited by the availability of customers willing and able to pay a price that exceeds the cost of production.

Professor Rickard’s work poses a most intriguing question when it comes to values, which is what is really “worth more.” If a fast food chain offers to “supersize” your order – but the large Coca-Cola or fries is beyond the calories you want to consume – is it a “better value” or in putting undesired temptation to over-eat right before your eyes, is it possible that the offer is worse and of lower value than serving what you actually want to consume?

So, this insight that “waste” skews toward less healthy items raises the question of whether waste is really something we should be trying to avoid, at least once it is in the home. If people smell the wafting scent of delicious baked goods and buy a lot of pretty empty carbs, then, once at home and out of the environment of the store, they reconsider and decline to eat the cake – isn’t that a good thing?

Lots of us have parents, grandparents or great grandparents who brought us up insisting we finish everything on our plates. There were, after all, starving children in Europe during World War II. Of course, then, as now, there was no direct connection between finishing one’s plate and feeding children in Europe – or Asia or Africa. But more importantly, that form of child-rearing has fallen out of fashion. Experts say don’t push your children to eat more if they are not hungry – that encourages obesity!

Of course, informing consumers in a way they understand is a good idea so they can make the best decisions. The two-tier warnings that Professor Rickard is testing seem to be preferred to one warning or the other. We would encourage a future study to try using actual English sentences as opposed to Use-By and Sell-By, which are inherently ambiguous.

How about actually saying what we mean: “This product will maintain optimal flavor until X date” or “Even if sealed and properly refrigerated, do not eat this product after X date”.

When Tesco came to America as Fresh & Easy, it started marking dates on fresh produce, even “hardware” items that  had not been dated before. Anecdotal consumer response was that it seemed to hurt sales, not help them. Even though the items didn’t expire any faster than at other stores, putting on a date seemed to raise the consciousness of the consumer that they were buying something that they needed to worry about going bad.

Professor Rickard is always earnest in his search for understanding. He is anxious to get feedback and share ideas. Please come to The New York Produce Show and Conference and engage on this high profile issue.

You can register here.

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