Improving UK Consumers' Decisions About Food Waste

Centre for Decision Research

Dr Nicola Bown and Dr Gulbanu Kaptan are members of the Centre for Decision Research. Dr Bown’s research interests include psychological theory in personal and organisational contexts, with particular reference to applied decision making, and Dr Kaptan’s include judgment and decision making, with special interest in food-related risk perception, communication and analysis. They are both co-investigators on a three-year Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) grant.

Celebrity chef, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, has a new documentary which aired on the BBC last week, exploring why the UK wastes so much food. The two-part series – Hugh’s War on Waste – sees Hugh challenging consumers and supermarkets to reduce their waste.

Improving consumers’ decisions about food waste is a topic we are exploring with colleagues as part of an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Research Seminar Series award.  The co-investigators on this project are a cross-disciplinary team based at the Universities of Leeds and Newcastle, WRAP (Waste Resources Action Programme) and the FSA (Food Standards Agency) in the UK. 

The seminar series, entitled “Food Options, Opinions and Decisions: Integrating perspectives on consumer perceptions of food safety, nutrition and waste”, aims to understand and improve UK consumers’ decisions about these issues.

UK domestic food waste is 7 million tonnes per year, of which 4.2 million tonnes is deemed preventable. As Hugh says on his programme, a third of all the food we produce in the UK never gets eaten. What we throw away costs the average British family £700 a year – about £15 a week. We dispose of a day’s worth of food every week on average – approximately 25 per cent of the bread we buy, 20 per cent of grapes, 10 per cent of yoghurt and 5 per cent of biscuits, is thrown away.

Research from WRAP (conducted in 2012) shows that the greenhouse gas emissions associated with avoidable food and drink waste from UK homes accounted for approximately 17 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent. The carbon saving of preventing all avoidable food waste that year is equivalent to taking one in four cars off the road. The figures are really shocking.

As well as waste, we need to improve UK consumers’ decisions about other food issues such as food safety - in the UK foodborne illnesses cause a staggering 20,000 hospitalisations and 500 deaths per year. Proper consideration needs to be given to how we communicate these facts as food safety warnings can cause undue alarm, increase food waste, and undermine healthy choices. Unhealthy eating is contributing to a worrying 62 per cent of UK adults being overweight or obese.

Our FOOD series is made up of nine seminars (the first three of which took place this year) and has included topics such as: food safety and disease risk, alternative protein sources, supply chain issues, food governance, sustainable consumption, waste reduction and the problems involved in designing effective communications about food. 

The seminar series is bringing together people who have mostly been working separately in these areas. Key experts – both academic and practitioners - from across the UK and overseas have shared their insights at the seminars.

Our goals align with DEFRA (the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs), the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation) and others who use the modern view of ‘food security’ for developed countries, by defining it as access to food that is nutritious, affordable, safe, and sustainable, while producing minimum domestic waste. Better food safety and reduced food waste are high priority for the EU.

The seminar series is timely and novel because it follows calls to better understand and inform the complex decisions consumers face about nutrition, food safety, and food waste. Several ideas for research have already been conceived of as a result of discussions at the event, including analysing datasets held by the FSA on UK food consumption behaviours.

A number of the presentations made at the three seminars are available to view as PDFs on the FOOD webpage. Videos from the first seminar are also available to watch online.

The next event will take place in Banbury on Thursday 21 January 2016 – we hope to see you there.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University Business School or the University of Leeds.