A lot of food gets wasted that is still fine to eat, but doesn't look perfect: it may have an odd shape, unattractive colour, breaks or dents, or with a best-before date that is close by or even past. These "suboptimal foods" may account for a large share of food waste: around 25% of foods that are bought are thrown away, many because their best-before date has passed, and around 15% of foods in the supermarket are wasted because consumers do not accept them. Food may also never reach the market, if it does not look perfect.
The COSUS project, "Consumers in a sustainable supply chain: Understanding the barriers and facilitators for acceptance of suboptimal foods", aimed to find ways to reduce food waste caused by consumers, by focusing on suboptimal foods. Participating partner institutes were the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Nofima AS, Aarhus University, Wageningen University, TU Dresden, RISE research institutes of Sweden, and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. The project ran between June 2014 and May 2017. The project aimed to:
1. Understand the barriers and facilitators for acceptance of suboptimal foods
2. Investigate how strategies that stimulate consumer acceptance of suboptimal
foods can be successfully implemented into the food supply chain
3. Design and test strategies that promote the consumption of suboptimal foods
In step 1, the literature and experts were consulted to provide handholds for the analyses. They were consulted on possible reasons for consumers to waste suboptimal foods, and how processes earlier in the food supply chain affect this food wastage. Previous initiatives that aim to reduce food waste were also analyzed, in order to see what their success factors were. Consumers were interviewed in focus groups, to understand opinions about suboptimal foods and reasons for wasting. An online survey among 4250 consumers helped to understand how opinions about suboptimal foods differ between the home and the store, between different products, and differ based on characteristics of the consumer.
In step 2, various experiments were conducted that aimed to increase consumer acceptance of suboptimal foods. Communication channels such as labels, flyers, fridge magnets, and posters, with messages focusing on reduced price, sustainability, gain for personal finances, social norms, or a combination of those, were tested. Experiments tested how experiences with the taste of suboptimal foods influences acceptance, and how implicit and explicit attitudes influence choice.
Parallel to these experiments were various studies aiming to understand how suboptimal foods are handled by other actors in the food supply chain (growers, suppliers, supermarkets) and whether, if consumers are willing to accept more suboptimal foods, suboptimal foods can reach the market more often (for example, curved cucumbers). The effect of existing supply contracts and retail structure was also analyzed in this context.
In step 3, three interventions were tested. A combination of communication, discounts and sensory experiences was tested in cafeterias, while an app aiming to help consumers waste less food was tested to reduce suboptimal food waste in households. An online survey tested elements from these interventions, and looked at policy acceptance by consumers.
Not surprisingly, food waste in general, and the acceptance of suboptimal foods specifically, are complex issues. The decision of a consumer to accept or discard suboptimal foods is influenced by personal characteristics such as attitudes, food-waste related lifestyle and involvement, environmental commitment, sociodemographic variables. In addition, external factors such as daily routines, food availability, planning, product or suboptimality type and the situations in which food decisions are made (home versus store). Communication had some effects on consumer attitudes to suboptimal foods, but the type of message did not matter: it was more important to draw consumers' attention to the suboptimal foods. Tasting suboptimal foods made consumers more positive to them, particularly when consumers had a bad taste expectation beforehand. Pricing strategies may help to increase acceptance of suboptimal foods in the store, but the supply chain research showed clear barriers to selling suboptimal foods: if the discount is too large, then suboptimal foods are not profitable. Many actors in the supply chain believe that consumers will not buy suboptimal foods.
This project has resulted in a great deal of knowledge and understanding of consumer attitudes and acceptance of suboptimal foods. Increasing acceptance of suboptimal foods is not easy, and may be easier for some products than for others, and for some consumers rather than others, and may be easier at home than in the store. If future initiatives can work with the COSUS results, then a lot of food waste may be prevented.
Consumers are directly and indirectly responsible for wasting a lot of food, which could for a large part be avoided if they were willing to accept suboptimal food (SOF) that deviates in sensory characteristics (odd shapes, discolourations) or has a best- before date that is approaching or has passed, but is still perfectly fine to eat. The choice to accept or discard SOF is taken both before and after purchase (in store and in household). Our aim is to increase consumer acceptance of SOF,
before and after purchase, by implementing targeted strategies that are based on consumer insights and are feasible for and acceptable by the food sector (Call topic 3).
The project is divided into eight work packages (WP) that combine different quantitative and qualita tive approaches. These approaches will be undertaken by competent partners from Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Norway in three phases. The first phase (WP 1-3) analyses the issue through a literature review and a transnational analysis of c onsumer motives, attitudes,habits and behaviour, and the structure and functioning of the food supply chain regarding consumer-related food waste and the success of previous food waste reducing initiatives. The second phase (WP 4-7) consists of experiment s that investigate the effects of consumer attention to communication related to SOF, sensory perceptions and household social interactions, on consumer acceptance of and willingness to pay for SOF. Barriers to and opportunities toward an improved handlin g of SOF in the supply chain will also be investigated. Finally, the third phase (W8) will develop and test strategies for effectively encouraging purchase and consumption of SOF in
household and in-store intervention studies. The project will provide val idated strategies to promote the distribution and consumption of suboptimal food products, therewith improving resource efficiency in the food supply chain and contributing to a more sustainable food provision.