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Focus January 2020

Food waste: an overblown problem

After the holiday season, the problem of phony estimates arises.

After the long year-end holiday period, newspapers, magazines and television have shifted from the usual advice about meals for Christmas Eve, Christmas and New Year’s Eve to the hackneyed and contradictory suggestions regarding detoxifying diets. So far, protocol is being followed. However, this new decade has dawned with fresh lamentations about wasted money. Wasted on pointless presents which are often recycled for being horrendous, bulky or useless, to the point where one doesn’t know where to keep them. What is amazing is the speed with which this problem is quantified, almost in real time. But how? Christmas has barely passed, yet our experts, perhaps using an old-school crystal ball, inform us that a third of Italians, meaning 23 million wretched souls, are ready to recycle the gifts they’ve received. 3.3 billion Euros’ worth of useless presents. These impressive reports imply that, considering the economic crisis under way in Italy, we are irresponsible lunatics to throw away all this money.
It seems that food accounts for 45% of recycled goods, and that 20% of purchased food is discarded. This generates other dramatic figures of the type “each family throws away 85 kilos of food each year, amounting to 450 Euros” or “food waste comes to 15 billion Euros per year” and so on. Values and estimations vary according to different sources. And the problem is precisely this: there is manifestly some waste, but it is a real mystery by which methods one can discover precisely what happens in Italian homes, especially with such speed. What matters is the impressive news headline, triggering guilt for this waste of precious resources. But are we sure that we, the consumers, are the true and sole culprits? For starters, several million Euros are thrown away at the source: through agriculture, in wholesale warehouses and by shopkeepers, that is, before the food reaches our homes. Then there are the companies offering substantial discounts on extra-large packages or 3-for-2 deals. They know perfectly well that the average family size is 2.3 people and that by now a third of households contain only one person, but instead of providing packaging suitable for such targets, they insist on treating consumers as if they were members of the large families common a century ago.
There is also the considerable problem of expiry dates. Many throw theoretically expired food away the day after the date printed on its packaging, when its suitability for consumption could be ascertained by simply tasting and observing it, as happens with eggs, milk, cheese, cured meats, pasta and so on. The truth is that expiry dates, created to protect consumers, have ended up being a boon to industry. If we were all rational, only purchasing useful gifts or necessary foods without wasting anything, consumption would fall by 20-30%. Would our economy withstand such a blow? The problem of leftovers has always existed and Artusi himself already knew this. In 1918, a book by the poet Olindo Guerrini was published posthumously; it was entitled L’arte di utilizzare gli avanzi della mensa e risparmiare con gusto (The art of using kitchen leftovers and saving money deliciously). Following this, tens of books on the same topic were published even in recent years. In 2016, the Academy edited the volume La Cucina del riuso (The Cuisine of Reuse) in its old Cultural Gastronomic Itineraries book series. These are signs that consumers are thoughtful and cannot bear to see good food wasted.

Paolo Petroni
President of the Academy