Americans Waste a Huge Amount of Food Every Year. Should Big Brands Be Worried?

Walk into your favorite grocery outlet. Look around at all the food for sale. Then, imagine dumping a third of it in the garbage.

That’s how much food experts say we discard every day. While some will be composted, most of it is headed for landfills. Sustainability activists have fretted about this for years, but concerns about wasted food are now going mainstream. Case in point: on Oct. 13, Anthony Bourdain, host and writer of CNN’s travel/foodie show Parts Unknown, debuted Wasted, the feature-length documentary about food waste, in theaters and online.

“Over the last 24 months, more shoppers are concerned about unused food,” said Laurie Demeritt, CEO of The Hartman Group, a market research consultancy. “In conversations, they’ll bring up the issue of food waste unaided.”

A few major marketers, such as Anheuser-Busch InBev and Quaker Oats, are scrambling to get ahead of the trend. Simultaneously, a handful of startups are peddling products that not only reduce waste, but use surplus food in their offering, with names like “Misfit” and “Ugly.”

This is just the beginning.

Big Food will inevitably feel pressure to address food waste, but they’ll find themselves in a tricky situation, according to Allen Adamson, founder and CEO of BrandSimple Consulting. “For major food and beverage marketers, anti-waste marketing initiatives will not drive brand preference, but companies have to protect themselves from ending up as the poster child for the problem. So they will [be forced] to invest in an area they’ve never invested in before,” he said.

Quaker Oats approached the issue with an online recipe contest in September. Called “More Taste, Less Waste,” the brand partnered with the James Beard Foundation and chef Marco Canora to challenge professional chefs to provide recipes that used oats and “rescued food,” such as onion and garlic skins. Consumers then voted online for their favorite recipe. “We saw the conversation growing about the food waste epidemic,” said Jessica Spaulding, senior marketing director of Quaker Foods North America. “This is more than a passing trend. As a nutrition brand, our contest was an opportunity to raise awareness and inspire solutions.”

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