Putting a freeze on meat waste

Although the HVAC&R industry often focuses on improving large-scale refrigeration equipment and practices in the food supply chain, a new report shows that refrigeration in households also requires serious attention to reduce Australia’s alarming levels of meat waste.

Home truths

The RMIT-led report, supported by the Fight Food Waste Cooperative Research Centre and Meat and Livestock Australia, focused on Australian households, where 140,300 tonnes of meat is wasted a year. This number does include waste from primary production, manufacturing, distribution, wholesale, retail or hospitality.

“Household waste has been found to be the highest, and substantially more than others in the supply chain,” says Project Lead and RMIT Research Fellow Dr Bhavna Middha.

“Another thing to note is that while meat as a waste product may not be the highest in terms of waste tonnage, red meat has the highest climate impact among the 18 commodity groups, and this impact is outsized compared to its waste footprint.”

The new report combined existing research with new in-depth interviews and observations in 20 households during warmer and cooler seasons, revealing their shopping, eating, cooking and food storage practices. The study also monitored fridge and freezer temperatures in 56 households.

It found that 17 per cent of fridges monitored were warmer or cooler than the recommended range of 2–7°C. There were also inconsistent temperatures across different fridge shelves, going up to an average of 10°C and down to -1.1°C. And almost half the freezers monitored had average temperatures outside of the optimal range.

Dr Middha says the fluctuating temperatures could be attributed to how often the fridge was opened. Households with children reported opening their fridge more often – even up to 20 times a day – possibly affecting the stability of fridge temperatures.

More than education

But with the red meat sector contributing to almost 12 per cent of Australia’s net greenhouse gas emissions, Dr Middha says merely informing households about food waste is not enough to bring about change.

“The burden of saving food from waste should be shared among policy makers, product designers, manufacturers, retailers and consumers,” she says. “Understanding the complexities of household behaviours around food storage can help these stakeholders create better strategies and products that will help save food from waste.”

Dr Middha says fridge designers and manufacturers have an opportunity to design and manufacture cold storage with better shelving and visibility.

“Our research found fridges and freezers were too deep, and lacked useful shelving to give the user visibility of what was being stored, which can lead to food being forgotten.”

Equipment issues

She also says there is a role for those in the technical services sector.

“We found that refrigerators are not replaced in households for a long time, making maintenance and repair a very important part of having an efficient fridge – in terms of food waste and energy consumption,” says Dr Middha.

“Furthermore, many people keep their old fridges as an extra storage space, again requiring ongoing maintenance. The HVAC&R industry has an important role in being the mediating persons, doing the repairs but also giving advice on how to check seals, check and maintain optimal fridge temperature, ambient temperature and so on.

“In terms of new refrigerators, temperature regulation in fridges may be an important site of intervention. Not many people regulate their fridges on an ongoing basis.”

A culture of waste

The researchers found that factors such as confusing cold storage advice and social pressures to over-cater at gatherings also contributed to food waste. 

“Many households we interviewed said conflicting information about how long food can be kept in the fridge meant a lot of leftovers and uncooked meat was discarded just in case it was unsafe to consume,” says Dr Middha.

“A one-stop advice platform for food storage could be a really useful tool to combat all the conflicting food storage advice that’s confusing households. We also need more research into why we feel the need to over-cater social events in the first place and do more to challenge this.”

The report, Practices of meat consumption and cold storage in Australian households, is available at the Fight Food Waste CRC website.

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