Your refrigerator is where ‘half-eaten food goes to die,’ according to new study

Every toss that meat or yogurt “just to be safe,” operating on some sort of gut instinct, or maybe guessing at what the label on the carton meant? So is the rest of the country, and the result is a shocking amount of wasted food.

“People eat a lot less of their refrigerated food than they expect to, and they’re likely throwing out perfectly good food because they misunderstand labels,” said Brian Roe, a professor of agricultural, environmental, and development economics at Ohio State University, in a release.

Roe was the senior author of a study on home food waste, performed alongside researchers from Ohio State and Louisiana State University.

food waste refrigerator

The study

The web-based pilot study used data from the State of the American Refrigerator survey and utilized information about the refrigerator contents and habits from 307 initial survey participants and 107 follow-up surveys.

The researchers asked participants about the contents of their fridge – fruits, vegetables, meats, and dairy. They wanted to know how much there was, and how much they planned on eating. Then, they followed up a week later to see if the participants’ estimations on their food usage were accurate.

In fact, it wasn’t at all.

  • Survey participants expected to eat 97% of the meat in their refrigerator, but only finished about 50%.
  • Participants assumed they’d eat 94% of their vegetables but ate just 44%.
  • They thought they’d consume 71% of their fruit and 84% of their dairy, but finished just 40% and 42%, respectively.

The top reasons for throwing food out included safety – things like food’s smell, appearance, and the dates on the labels.

All in all, an estimated 43% of all food waste is due to in-home habits (as opposed to restaurant waste, and so on.)

Misunderstanding food labels

A major factor in people throwing away food was their misunderstanding in food labels.

“No one knows what ‘use by’ and ‘best by’ labels mean, and people think they are a safety indicator when they are generally a quality indicator,” said Roe. Currently, there is a proposal before Congress to clarify food labels.

Megan Davenport, a graduate student in Ohio State’s Department of Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics, led the study. Danyi Qi of Louisiana State University also worked on the study.

The results of the study will hopefully decrease food waste, Roe said. Its results were published in Resources, Conservation & Recycling.