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“Maybe it’s still good?” A qualitative study of factors influencing food waste and application of the E.P.A. Food recovery hierarchy in U.S. supermarkets

January 19, 2021

Caitlin A. Ceryes, Cerra C. Antonacci, Steven A. Harvey, Marie L. Spiker, Anna Bickers, Roni A. Neff

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About 31% of post-harvest food available for human consumption is lost or wasted annually in the United States. Roughly one third (43 billion lbs.) of food loss occurs in grocery and other retail food stores. Supermarkets engage in food waste reduction, rescue, and recycling strategies, but little is known about frontline workers' and department managers' perspectives on food discards and strategies to limit waste. We aimed to increase understanding of factors influencing grocery retail employees' food waste decision-making at the store level, and of the perspectives of those frontline supermarket workers and managers responsible for food waste prevention and mitigation. We conducted 20 qualitative semi-structured interviews and used thematic analysis to explore how grocery workers and managers view food waste decision drivers, and how these impact the feasibility and effectiveness of waste reduction and food rescue and recycling in their stores. Workers and managers report personalized discard decision-making and confusion between quality and safety indicators. Interviewees described in-store policies, resources and trainings as lacking or inconsistently applied, leading to variability in food waste prevention, rescue, and recycling. Overall, interview participants considered waste reduction strategies that rescue profitable goods more feasible than other food rescue and recycling efforts like donation and composting. Workers' and managers’ perceptions of in-store food waste drivers and views on extant food waste prevention and mitigation efforts point to areas for future research and intervention.