According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), in its Food Waste Index Report for 2021, the world generated “around 931 million tons of food waste” in 2019, and of this, 61% came from households, 26% from food service, and 13% from retail. “This suggests that 17% of total global food production may be wasted (11% in households, 5% in food service, and 2% in retail),” it added.
The UNEP also noted in its 2021 report that “previous estimates of consumer food waste significantly underestimated its scale,” and that “food waste at consumer level (household and food service) appears to be more than twice the previous FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization] estimate.” Moreover, “household per capita food waste generation is found to be broadly similar across country income groups.”
Simply put, all countries, and all people — whether rich or poor — waste food. And most of that waste is generated in households, averaging 76 to 91 kilograms of food waste per person per year, in homes in lower middle-income to high-income countries. At a median of 83.5 kilograms, that comes out to roughly 23 grams of food per person daily. One cup of uncooked rice is estimated at 180 grams, while one cup of cooked rice is roughly 200 grams in weight. That 23 grams is equivalent to two tablespoons of cooked rice daily.
These measures are relevant given recommendations for Congress to pass a national law that will make it mandatory for restaurants to sell smaller meal sizes, in particular, a half-cup order of rice. As if “cup” size is the same for all food service establishments and that there is an actual standard in place for meal size or volume that is consistently monitored by government for compliance.
The proposed law’s primary intent is to reduce food waste. Perhaps a secondary intent is to combat obesity. In part, the latter also helps address the “silent” pandemic: diabetes. But, if global data shows that most food waste occurs in households, why should rice order sizes in restaurants be the target? Should we even regulate by law meal sizes in restaurants?
Common sense dictates that if the meal size is too big, or has too much rice, then one should not order it. One can order something smaller. It is a case of one wanting to order a meal but refusing to take responsibility for finishing it. Why should this be the establishment’s problem? And, the government solution to this problem is to dictate by law the availability of a smaller-sized rice order? An order of half-cup rice, in particular?
Who determines “reasonable” portion size, based on science and research data? What is a half-cup? This will depend on whether one is measuring dry or wet ingredients. In the case of cooked rice, it is both wet and dry. So, what standard should be used? For water, a half-cup is an exact unit of measure equivalent to a quarter of a pint, or roughly 120 grams. For honey, it is about 170 grams. For sugar, it is about 100 grams. By some estimates, one cup of uncooked rice is 180 grams, while one cup of cooked rice is roughly 200 grams in weight.
In short, cup size can be arbitrary. Weight is a more accurate measure. In this line, perhaps we should just require food service establishments to sell meals by weight? Even rice, not by portion size, but by weight. Pay only for weight you ordered. Like buying items from the market. After all, uncooked rice is sold in the markets by weight.
So, if Congress passes a national law requiring half-cup rice orders in all restaurants, will it set the exact unit of measure? Will it set guidelines for compliance and monitoring? How will it penalize restaurants that do not conform to the standard? Will it also penalize consumers who do not finish their food? After all, the intent is to prevent food waste. Shouldn’t we also penalize customers who waste food?
Why penalize only restaurants for not serving half-cup rice but not customers who waste their food? Who generated the waste, anyway? The producer or the consumer? And who will enforce the half-cup rice law? Compliance without monitoring of waste is half-baked. If people do not finish their food, they should be penalized as well.
And while we are at it, why not require by law half-order sizes for all food and not just rice? Again, food waste is the problem that needs to be addressed, right? So, why set “standards” for cooked rice only? Perhaps the wasting of food should be included in the revised penal code as a criminal offense punishable by a jail term. Food waste is a crime against humanity. In this line, Congress should also outlaw “unlimited rice” offers by restaurants.
The fact of the matter is, because of inflation and significantly higher food prices nowadays, meal sizes have already become smaller in most restaurants. Requiring that a half-cup rice order be made available is superfluous. All set meals offered with rice will have to be customized and repriced.
Frankly, what I want to see at this point is scientific data that a national law dictating rice order size is urgently needed, and that it will effectively address the issue of food waste, and curtail excessive consumer demand for rice. As opposed to programs that encourage people to be healthy and not to waste food.
Reports indicate that 46 local governments already have local ordinances on the half-cup rice option. But do these ordinances have a basis in science and research? By now, they should have data as to how many customers opt for half-cup rather than full-cup orders. What does the data indicate? Are the local ordinances effectively reducing food waste?
A bill filed in Congress provides that establishments that fail to abide by the proposed law will be fined P10,000 for the first offense, P20,000 for the second offense, and P30,000 for the third offense. But not customers who order more than what they can eat? Food is wasted only if people do not finish what they ordered, and do not take home the leftovers. So, how then does a full-cup order of rice become food waste?
I assume the government has data on rice waste, but does it have scientific data to pinpoint the source of waste, and by how much it can be reduced by the proposed law? If most waste occurs in households rather than in restaurants, what is Congress doing about that? Nothing, obviously. And rightly so. I am averse to any “portion” mandates, whether in restaurants or at home. Government should just stay out of this. We do not need Big Brother controlling how we eat.
The bill’s explanatory note says it envisions a future where individuals are more conscious of their food choices, and establishments prioritize responsible serving practices. Its goal is a society with a sustainable and balanced approach to food consumption. And all this, it believes, can be achieved by a law penalizing restaurants for not offering half-cup rice portions. Good luck with that.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council