40% of U.S. food wasted, report says
Average supermarket losses are 11.4% for fresh fruit, the report says.
August 22nd, 2012
12:45 PM ET

40% of U.S. food wasted, report says

Forty percent of food in the United States is never eaten, amounting to $165 billion a year in waste, taking a toll on the country's water resources and significantly increasing greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council released this week.

The group says more than 20 pounds of food is wasted each month for each of 311 million Americans, amounting to $1,350 to $2,275 annually in waste for a family of four. Think of it as dumping 80 quarter-pound hamburger patties in the garbage each month, or chucking two dozen boxes of breakfast cereal into the trash bin rather than putting them in your pantry.

The report points out waste in all areas of the U.S. food supply chain, from field to plate, from farms to warehouses, from buffets to school cafeterias.

"Food is simply too good to waste," the report says. "Given all the resources demanded for food production, it is critical to make sure that the least amount possible is needlessly squandered on its journey to our plates."

Most of the waste comes in the home, the report says.

"American families throw out approximately 25% of the food and beverages they buy," the report says. It cites several reasons, including that food has been so cheap and plentiful in the United States that Americans don't value it properly.

"Food represents a small portion of many Americans' budgets, making the financial cost of wasting food too low to outweigh the convenience of it," the report says. "This issue of wasted food is simply not on the radar of many Americans, even those who consider themselves environment- or cost-conscious."

Enticed by impulse buys, sales and savings by buying in bulk, Americans simply buy more food than they can eat, the report says. Part of that problem comes from poor planning such as impromptu decisions to eat out when there's still food in the fridge and when we do cook at home, making enough to fill the plate rather than what we actually need to eat.  The average size of the U.S. dinner plate is 36% bigger now than it was in 1960, the report says.

Portion sizes account for significant food loss in restaurants, too, it says. Seventeen percent of the food in restaurant meals is not eaten, the report says, but too much food is served.

"Today, portion sizes can be two to eight times larger than USDA or FDA standard serving sizes," the report says.

And restaurants stock more food than they serve, it says.

"Particularly wasteful are large buffets, which cannot reuse or even donate most of what is put out because of health code restrictions," the report says.

Changes can be made in school cafeterias, too, according to the report. It encourages schools to serve lunch after recess so students would have more time to eat and therefore eat some of what they waste now.

Retailers also bear some responsibility, the report says.

"The retail model views waste as a part of doing business," it says, noting that stores may be looked at suspiciously by their corporate parents if their waste numbers are too low. "Industry executives and managers view appropriate waste as a sign that a store is meeting quality-control and full-shelf standards."

Among the problems at the retail level, according to the report:

  • Stores overstock displays of fresh produce to give an impression of bounty, leaving items at the bottom bruised and unsellable.
  • They make too much ready-to-eat food. "One grocer estimated that his store threw away a full 50% of the rotisserie chickens that were prepared," the report said.
  • They throw out food in damaged or outdated promotional packaging (think holiday cookies) that is still edible.

Waste also occurs on the farm and in the packing house.

"Approximately 7% of planted fields in the United States are typically not harvested each year," the report says.

Among the possible reasons cited in the report: Growers can't get a good enough price for their crop to make harvest profitable, or they overplanted and have more crop than there is demand for, or the food is of edible quality but not marketable.

"A packer of citrus, stone fruit, and grapes estimated that 20% to 50% of the produce he handles is unmarketable but perfectly edible," the report says.

All that waste has environmental costs, the report says.

Food production accounts for 80% of the country's fresh water consumption, but the waste of food means 25% of the fresh water is actually wasted.

And wasted food rotting in landfills accounts for 25% of U.S. methane emissions. Methane is a greenhouse gas that remains in the atmosphere as long as 15 years and is 20 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The report says there are places to look for better examples on how to use our food resources. For example, American food waste is 10 times what is experienced in Southeast Asia.

And we can also look to our own history. Waste is up 50% since the 1970s, the report says.

One key recommendation of the report is standardization of date labels on food. Americans may be throwing out a substantial amount of edible food simply because they misinterpret a "sell by" date as a "use by" date, the report says.

It also says the economic model of the food chain may need to change.

"There is the plain economic truth that the more food consumers waste, the more those in the food industry are able to sell," the report says.

If these problems can be fixed, the nation's hungry could benefit, according to the report.

"Reducing losses by just 15% could feed more than 25 million Americans every year," the report says.

The National Resources Defense Council is an environmental action group with more than 1.3 million members. It works to combat global warming, defend wildlife, create clean energy, cut pollution, protect waters supplies and revive the world's oceans, according to its website.

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Filed under: Agriculture • Energy • Environment • Food
soundoff (519 Responses)
  1. Brian K

    Anyone shocked by this news should bury their heads in the sand!

    August 22, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Report abuse |
  2. raven

    LOL,Karl. And water?? Ewwww, I'll have a soda, please.

    August 22, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Report abuse |
  3. dazzle ©

    I am appalled by this report and find it interesting that Driscoll strawberries are pictured. I am a very careful shopper and check for freshness and expiration dates. My local grocer had a sale on Driscoll strawberries and I bought 2 containers. Two days after getting them home, one developed a mold on it. I returned it to the store and got a refund immediately. Buy only what you need and be very careful with expiration dates particularly on dairy products. You will note that the expiration dates are shorter than what they used to be. If you buy meat and don't plan to use it right away freeze it.

    August 22, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Angela

      This is sad, given alot of people don't have anything to eat or not enough to eat. I know fast food restaurants waste alot of food and it upsets me alot. They say for health & sanitary reasons they're not allowed to give their food away

      August 22, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      Hi, dazzle.
      Although I am appalled my it, I am not surprised; my neighbor worked in the HS cafeteria and told me just how much food is thrown out daily...multiply that by the number of HS's doing the same thing and you'll arrive at a pretty horrific amount of waste.
      And this is just the HS's...

      August 22, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • allenwoll

      The soilage of fresh strawberries and other fragile fresh foods can be retarded in several ways, but be careful what you pick up in the first place – -

      1. Seal them in small lots in a zipper plastic bag, or
      2. Wash, cut and sugar them right away - they will keep in a sealed container for a longer time, or
      3. Do as in 2. and freeze. (Not appropriate for all such foods - Try and see).

      Excellent mashed potatos can be made from frozen diced potatos (Hash Brown Southern Style) by cooking well in the microwave and then mashing : No losses to spoilage as with fresh potatos.

      Put meats in small lots in plastic zipper bags before freezing. A snack zipper bag holds jusat enough ground meat for a good burger (1/3-pound). It does take some practice !

      August 22, 2012 at 6:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • shawn L

      As a teacher who used to monitor the lunch room for years, and saw first hand the waste it is due to a couple reasons. 1. The push to FORCE children to take "Healthy" items. Putting it on the plate does not mean the kid is going to eat it, in fact it just goes to waste. 2. Kids don't eat things that they don't get fed at home. You would be amazed at how ignorant of food many kisd of even high school age are. I used to provide rewards to the class like biscuits and gravy, pancakes, waffles, etc and kids would look at home made from scratch foods like they were alien. IF it's not from a package, most kids aren't familiar with it.

      August 22, 2012 at 7:10 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Jayson

    I for one don't waste 20 lbs of food a month. At most it might be 10lbs but even that is a stretch......

    August 22, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
  5. The Land of Safeway and Costco

    Some of it just rots, off the plant before it hits stores or after it hits stores. Vegetables and fruits need to be grown constantly because whether it is sold or not, it will rot unless it is canned or freeze dried. There is some inherent waste expected in consuming fruits and vegetables. The rest of the cooked food, baked goods that is destined for the dumpster should be donated to food charities and then the proceeds used as a writeoff for the food megas. It should be official policy. Otherwise, it is pure waste and a hole in the pocket of the US.

    August 22, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • ~~~

      I agree. I went to a local blueberry farm in WI that was losing a lot of produce. I would imagine he simply doesn't have the money to get it picked on time and to market.

      August 22, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Joepub

    "American families throw out approximately 25% of the food and beverages they buy," the report says. It cites several reasons, including that food has been so cheap and plentiful in the United States that Americans don't value it properly.

    What??? Maybe you should look at my food bill and get back to me on that.

    August 22, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • shawn L

      No kidding. Food is far from being cheap and disposable.

      August 22, 2012 at 7:11 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Andrew

    This is not the first year this has ever happened. It happens every year, but now the media makes it a "Breaking" story. People need to get in touch with the real problems of our economy.

    August 22, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jan of Duluth, GA

      "Real problems of our economy"?? $165Bn in waste is not a problem in our economy? This happens while we squander 25% of our fresh water supply, create tons of pollutants and greenhouse gases transporting the food that becomes waste, the unnecessary methane gases created by the food waste in landfills - all the while we have 15% of our population experiencing food insecurity every month, which translates into millions of children going hungry to school. You want to talk about a real problem?? Are you for real?

      August 22, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Poor Animals

    I wonder how much of this wasted food comes from animals that were slaughtered to make it.

    August 22, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Report abuse |
  9. James

    High Fructose Corn Syrup and trans-fats counts as food? You people need to eat some food once in awhile. Head to your local farmer or to a natural/organic cafe sometime. Taste what food really tastes like. I feel sorry for the today's generations. Those of 40 and older should/remember what real food tastes like.

    August 22, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Report abuse |
  10. ~~~

    Most of our food is so contaminated that people shouldn't be eating it anyway.

    August 22, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
  11. ~~~

    They will probably be healthier now. I went through the house and threw out everything that made me sick. not left with much.

    August 22, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Yawn

    "Reducing losses by just 15% could feed more than 25 million Americans every year," the report says.

    Umm, Americans don't need anymore food. They are fat enough – especially "...those that can't afford it."

    August 22, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Report abuse |
  13. popeye1128

    Moldy bread and cheese, sour milk every so often but no where near 20lbs a month.

    Watch Hell's Kitchen and you'll see waste. Love the show, hate seeing all the wasted food.

    August 22, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Report abuse |
  14. mc

    I find it hard to believe. I believe that there is waste at restaurants, grocery stores, etc., but not at home. The only thing we regularly waste are herbs. Sometimes you need just a touch of an herb but can only buy it in larger amounts. That always gets trashed. They should sell herbs by the ounce.

    August 22, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Mimo

    After living 23 years in Central America and not having enough food in the table for lunch or dinner, this really shocking , but I i see it every day with co workers, roommates and friends, most of their food ends up in the trash bin, Now every week i ask them what are they planing to discard and they give it to me i then have food for a few days, there is lots of food that can go to families that really need the food

    August 22, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Report abuse |
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