How to minimise food waste

10 May 2012

Every day, large quantities of food that could have once been consumed (or have other use) are being wasted. How can we take action to reduce the amount of food we waste, to save money and natural resources, and help make sure that those in need are fed?

What a waste!

In Europe, an estimated 89 million tonnes of food are discarded every year. Food is wasted at every stage of the food chain - from farm to fork, by producers, processors, retailers, caterers and consumers.1

Correspondingly, reduction of food waste is high on the agendas of EU Institutions. The European Parliament has called for immediate collective action to halve food waste by 2025, and the European Commission aims for this reduction by 2020, with food being a main priority in its ‘Roadmap to a resource efficient Europe’. This ambition requires concerted efforts from the whole food supply chain.2,3

Equally, waste reduction also requires changes in behaviour of consumers. Across the food-abundant nations of Europe, a large portion of waste is thrown out by households (37 million tonnes).1 There is investigation into food waste across Europe. Most evidence is derived from the UK, which estimates that 60% of household waste could be avoided, which translates to an average £480 (€565) household-saving each year. Furthermore, the estimated environmental savings equate to taking 1 in 5 cars off the road.4

Why is food wasted?

There are many explanations for food being wasted; these differ between sectors of the food chain. Standardised data on food wastage are lacking, particularly in the manufacture and retail sectors. Agricultural food waste also deserves further research. Most wastage in manufacturing is apparently unavoidable; much waste is inedible or results from technical issues that lead to overproduction, misshapen or damaged items. Wholesalers and retailers face logistical challenges, including stock management: anticipating demand and correct storage, meeting product quality expectations, and coordination between sectors.

Regarding household and catering kitchens, the main explanations for throwing out food (avoidable waste) are because it was left on plates, left over from cooking, or not used in time. Here, waste relates to individuals’ awareness and attitudes, and practical food management skills such as planning, portioning and storage.1 Household causes of waste may vary with regional factors including climate, socio-economic status or culture, for example, the custom to generously prepare more food than can be eaten and to have food leftover. Further country-level research is recommended to help target prevention.

Date-marks on food labels are one of the most important pieces of information reportedly sought by European consumers.5 Consumer research (UK and Ireland) highlights confusion over date-labelling: about a third of food is discarded before the ‘best before’ date.6,7 Storage practices also show room for improvement. Most fruit and vegetables will keep longer when refrigerated. However, only 23% of consumers said they would store fresh fruit, and 53% fresh vegetables, in the fridge. Many would leave foods ‘unsealed’ or loose, open to the atmosphere, which could reduce freshness (in contrast, bread stales quicker in the fridge).

Tackling food waste

A hierarchy for handling waste, in the EU Waste Framework Directive 2008/98/EC, gives priority to waste reduction at source, followed by re-use, recycling and recovery, with disposal as a last resort.9 This concept has been applied to food waste by the US Environmental Protection Agency. After first attempting to reduce waste, it suggests that edible food is redistributed to people, animals and then industry.

Across Europe, there are over one hundred initiatives to reduce the accumulation of food waste. Strategies include raising awareness through campaigns, information, training, measuring waste and improving logistics. However, activity is recent and evaluation limited – both need to be ongoing.

Measuring food waste

The act of separating food from other waste can be consciousness-raising. Separate ‘food waste collections’ offers environmental benefits (food waste is composted/aerobically-digested), but its influence on food waste reduction has yet to be quantified.1 Measuring and reporting waste levels further promotes engagement; using standardised methodologies at a national level would allow targeted analysis and prevention, which could be driven by the establishment of waste prevention targets.


The Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) has been campaigning in the UK for people to ‘Love Food, Hate Waste’, and recorded a 13% reduction in waste over 3 years (2006/7–2010).10 WRAP found that people who plan, create shopping lists and monitor what food they have, waste less food than ‘spontaneous shoppers’.6 The organisation encourages people to make the most of their leftovers and use up food that is near the end of its shelf-life in new recipes. Raising awareness at consumer level may also raise awareness within the supply chain.

One approach is to train waste-minimising habits through cooking classes, for example the local authority of Brussels (Bruxelles Environnement) trained 1000 people in 2009.1 The European Parliament has recommended that this practical training is incorporated into school curricula.2 There are similar educational opportunities in the hospitality industry. Caterers can help to minimise waste by anticipating demand, informed by reservations and customer feedback surveys.1 At the same time, allowing restaurant diners to take leftovers home (in a ‘doggy bag’) is a common phenomenon in the US, but this practice is frowned upon in some EU countries. Societal efforts are needed to banish embarrassment. Leftovers should be refrigerated within 2 hours and consumed within 24 hours, reheated until ‘piping hot’ all the way through.

Communicating freshness

Several date stamps may be found on food labels: ‘best before’, ‘use by’, ‘sell by’, ‘display until’, but these are not always used consistently.

The European Parliament has suggested dual-date labelling to include both ‘sell by’ (which can help retailers avoid selling products reaching their end-of-life) and ‘use by’ dates, but consumer understanding of terminology is needed first.

Currently legislation on the provision of food information to consumers reserves the ‘use by’ date for highly perishable foods. After this date they are deemed unsafe (safety indicator).12,13 The ‘best before’ date refers to minimum durability, beyond this date it is unlikely to cause any harm but a warning from the manufacturer that the sensory qualities (taste, texture etc.) may not be as good as intended (quality indicator). When integral to their validity, advice on storage conditions must accompany the date.

Consumers should be reassured that “… using their own judgement (visual, olfactory and taste) is adequate for many food products”, except when there is an expired ‘use by’ date.1 Research by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland highlights that a considerable proportion (46%) of Irish consumers said they have no problem eating food past the ‘use by’ date, thus potentially putting their health at risk.7 Products showing an exceeded ‘use by’ date, could be contaminated with harmful bacteria yet not show any change and therefore should not be eaten.7 Consumers should ensure that packaging is intact, and particularly that dried products, such as sugar, flour and coffee, are not damp and are free of insects.

Further guidance for businesses would help standardise communication of dates and storage advice (which can significantly extend shelf-life, e.g. keeping dry foods in airtight containers).1 Freezers offer the opportunity to preserve foods. Advice on food labels regarding freezing instructions should be harmonised so that consumers can confidently and safely freeze food.15 Retailers can also support consumers by promoting the use (sale) of freezer labels and pens, storage containers, cool bags (to transport chilled foods home) and fridge thermometers (to maintain domestic refrigerators between 0°C and 5°C).

Innovations in packaging can reduce waste (and overall environmental impact), by improving materials and design features such as re-sealable packaging, and developing ‘intelligent’ films that indicate loss of freshness by changing colour.

Redistributing good food

Surplus food should move down the hierarchy of waste management and be redistributed.1 The European Parliament has called for the European Commission to produce clear guidance on the safety of using this food.

Throwaways can include perfectly edible food rejected by appearance. To address this issue, European law governing quality standards of fruit and vegetables has been relaxed (EC No 1221/2008) to allow the sale of less-aesthetic produce.16 Nevertheless, sale and use requires consumer acceptance. The range in quality can be reflected in price. In order to save waste, retailers use price promotions for foods slightly damaged or nearing expiry (although banned in some Member States).2 Discounting is recommended over bulk-deals, but there is risk of shifting waste behaviour to the consumer (by encouraging excessive purchases), and even encouraging over-consumption.1 Food banks play a role here. Several countries (e.g. Austria, Denmark, Italy, Spain, UK) have successful food bank programmes, in which excess food is transported from retailers to people in need or other sales outlets (e.g. discount stores or local markets), but these are small-scale.

Savings all round

As the Food and Agriculture Organization states, “there is a need to find good and beneficial use for safe food that is presently thrown away.”17 Food waste is forecasted to climb with population growth, demand for food, and increasing affluence.1 Food industry, retailers and consumers all need to be aware and act upon this issue. A few simple efficiency measures would not only be good for our purses, but have global benefits too.

Further information

  1. Love Food Hate Waste
  2. Too Good to Waste (UK)
  3. FoodWaste (Ireland)
  4. Stop Food Waste
  5. Stop Spild Af Mad (Denmark)
  6. Eten Is Om Op Te Eten (Netherlands)
  7. Slang Inte Maten (Sweden)


  1. European Commission (2010). Preparatory study on food waste across EU 27
  2. European Parliament (2011). European Parliament resolution of 19 January 2012 on how to avoid food wastage: strategies for a more efficient food chain in the EU.
  3. Potocnik J, European Commissioner for Environment (2011). It's time to stop wasting food. Conference "Combating food waste in the EU"  (Ref: SPEECH/11/725)
  4. WRAP (2011). Estimates for household food and drink waste in the UK 2011.
  5. EUFIC (2011). Forum n° 5 – Consumer response to portion information on food and drink packaging – A pan-European study.
  6. WRAP (2011). Consumer insight: date labels and storage guidance.
  7. Food Safety Authority of Ireland (2011). Press Release: 5 out of 10 people ignore use by dates.
  8. WRAP (2007). Food storage and packaging. 
  9. European Commission (2008) Directive 2008/98/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 19 November 2008 on waste and repealing certain directives.
  10. WRAP (2011). WRAP reports significant progress on waste reduction
  11. European Commission (2011) Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 October 2011 on the provision of food information
  12. European Commission (2000) Directive 2000/13/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 March 2000 on the approximation of the laws of the Member States relating to the labelling, presentation and advertising of foodstuffs
  13. EU Food Policy (2012). Member states to debate legal status when "best before" date is exceeded. EU Food Policy 97:8.
  14. WRAP (2010). Press release: Industry recommendations unveiled to reduce household food waste, 19 August 2010.
  15. European Commission. Commission Regulation (EC) No 1221/2008 of December 2008 amending Regulation (EC) No 1580/2007 laying down implementing rules of Council Regulations (EC) No 2200/96, (EC) No 2201/96 and (EC) No 1182/2007 in the fruit and vegetable sector as regards marketing standards
  16. Food and Agriculture Organization (2011). Global food losses and food waste: extent, causes and prevention.