Don't let 'extreme couponing' result in food waste

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Extreme couponing is becoming the hot trend for people looking to cut their food costs, but it can lead to increased waste, according to a food-safety expert in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, who offers some savvy tips to save money in the long run.

As popularized on television, "extreme couponers" are people who hunt for coupons to reduce their shopping bills substantially. With hundreds of coupons in hand, these shoppers purchase hundreds of dollars worth of food and then pay only 10 percent to 20 percent of that total at the register.

"Generally, however, it often results in people buying products they normally don't purchase, or they buy in larger quantities than they can use," said Martin Bucknavage, extension food-safety specialist. "One of the problems with this practice is that it can lead to increased food waste."

Bucknavage cites recent studies showing that consumers waste between 15 percent and 30 percent of the food they purchase. "So, while people may save through the use of coupons, if the food is wasted, there is still the loss in resources that went into making those food items and, just as important, the costs of handling the waste that is generated," he said.

These costs include the energy that went into harvesting and processing the food, the materials used for the packaging (which often are petroleum-based) and energy used in transportation, storage and display at retail outlets, Bucknavage explained.

"The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that food waste accounts for the majority of nonrecycled solid waste handled by landfills and incinerators," he said. "As consumers, we need to be more cognizant of our food waste and the cost that it truly represents.

"There are some practices we can adopt that not only will reduce our food waste but also lower the costs of food and energy."

Bucknavage offered the following advice to coupon-wielding shoppers:

--Buy only what you will use. Plan your food menu so that you buy only what you will prepare and eat between shopping trips.

"It's true, buying too little may mean that you need to drive to the store more times, thus wasting fuel," he said. "But buying too much may result in having too much food on the shelf with the potential for it going bad before you can use it.

"I think we all can relate to a bottle of juice or can of tomatoes getting lost on the back of the shelf. We forget it is there, and when we find it, the product has exceeded its shelf-life.

"If you have never tried pickled okra but have a coupon for 12 bottles, buy one bottle first and try it before buying a whole case that you might end up throwing out when you discover you don't like it."

-- Serve only what you need. "Too often we prepare too much food, way more than the family can reasonably eat," Bucknavage said. "While we hope to use these leftovers, too often the container gets moved to the back of the shelf and is forgotten until it molds, or we just toss it into the garbage can."

-- Store food properly. Refrigeration temperature should be set at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, preferably 36 to 38 degrees. Unfortunately, studies have shown that many consumers have refrigerators with temperatures at or above 45 degrees, Bucknavage noted.

"Making this worse, consumers often stuff their refrigerators so full that there is poor air flow, resulting in higher temperatures," he said. "These conditions result in food deteriorating and spoiling more quickly."

For frozen storage, Bucknavage advises keeping the freezer at or below 0 F. "Do not store more food than you can eat in six months to a year," he said. "After that time, many foods will lose much of their flavor and are likely to show signs of freezer burn."

-- Wrap food properly. If you plan to freeze fresh meat you bought on sale, be sure to wrap it in packaging designed for freezer storage, Bucknavage pointed out. This packaging will help reduce freezer burn, which results when moisture is lost from the food surface.

If you open a package of frozen food and use only a small portion, be sure to properly reseal the package or transfer it to a freezer bag. Improperly sealed containers also can lead to a loss in quality.

"It's great to save money through the use of coupons, but we also can save money by better managing what we buy, and how we store and prepare those food items," Bucknavage said. "Purchasing too much or buying what we will not use in a timely manner will result only in increased food waste."

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Last Updated November 17, 2011