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. Philip Maynard

    This article smacks of creating an excuse to ration food or create another government overlord to monitor our liberty to eat or not eat what we want. I swear, CNN is the poster child for furthering government control. I know why I have decreased my time visiting this awful news site.

    August 22, 2012 at 6:56 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Annma

      Agree Phil. It was my first thought when reading this article. I only come here for the travel section, but my eye wanders, and I become aggitated every time.

      August 22, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Report abuse |
  2. shawn L

    People who are active consume more calories than one who is just merely fat. Also people who are overweight tend to consume calorie dense, cheap and easy to produce foods. You don't get fat on land consuming beef or vegetables.

    August 22, 2012 at 7:00 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  3. shawn L

    My family wastes nothing. Any food that isn't consumed or goes bad before being consumed is fed to either our dogs or our egg laying hens. Anything like banana peels goes into the garden to be turned into compost.

    August 22, 2012 at 7:04 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  4. sybaris

    Good gravy!!

    2/3 of the county is obese and yet 40% of the food is wasted???!!

    There is absolutely no reason why anyone in the U.S. should go to bed hungry.

    August 22, 2012 at 7:08 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • RF Burns

      It appears to be a distribution problem.

      August 22, 2012 at 9:47 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Barbara

    Asian grocery stores are fantastic! Where I live they sell sub par produce for $1 an ~5 lb bag or something. American grocery stores will not sell me perfectly good produce if it has one blemish. Some will give me slightly damaged produce if I tell them if it is for my compost pile. Others like Safeway, not even that. Some aspects of US culture are positively criminal.

    August 22, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  6. cas

    That is not what is wasted in gluttony....and has to be exercised out...or pay medical bills for..

    August 22, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Coflyboy

    My wife works at a grocery store, where they throw out lots of food daily simply because it is expired. They have to by law, even if the food is still edible. They have to lock up the dumpsters, because if a homeless person goes dumpster-diving and eats the food and gets sick, they can sue the grocery store.
    Now does that make sense?

    August 22, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • 2hotel9

      Can't be allowing the serfs to make their own decisions, don't you know!!!!

      August 22, 2012 at 7:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • jon

      This food should be donated to the churches if it is still good for food pantries to help feed the needy. The store should be exempted from any liability by a written contract with the church as a good faith donation.

      August 22, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ron

      Am a meat cutter you would not belive what we throw away, we could feed a ton of people with what one store throws out.

      August 22, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Tony

    Isnt glutony one of the sins or something like that?

    August 22, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Jennifer in California

    I am surprised at the statistics about how much food is wasted at home. I don't get the mentality of not making a point of using what one purchases. That said, when I come home from the local chain supermarket with fresh fruit that rots 4 days later I'm too lazy and annoyed to make a special trip back to said store to return it. Then I throw it in the green waste container. So, in my own way, I'm part of that wasteful society.

    August 22, 2012 at 7:22 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Inciteful

    The shorter the stamped/stated shelf-life on the package, the greater the waste. Food manufacturers and importers should have to prove/demonstrate to the FDA with scientific data that the shelf-life of their products is as short as reflected in the "sell by" or "use by" dates.

    August 22, 2012 at 7:24 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  11. TiVi

    That's why eat-out portions should be *reduced* in America. Healthier portions and less waste.

    August 22, 2012 at 7:25 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  12. twgloege

    This will change when the need for Walmart greeters is exceeded by the number of people in the US.

    August 22, 2012 at 7:25 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Brandon Coles

    Ever seen the hundreds of restaurants and buffets in Vegas, and looked at all the food going into the disposal? Nothing exceeds like excess. . . . . . . We will all go to hell for this.

    August 22, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • l1234

      Farmers pick up the left over food in Vegas to feed to their pigs. I seen it on Dirty Jobs.

      August 22, 2012 at 8:10 pm | Report abuse |
  14. 2hotel9

    Why is cnn censoring my comments?!?! I can reply to other commenters, and yet my direct comments are censored.

    August 22, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • 2hotel9

      OK, lets try it this way. Why cnn perpetuating these lies?

      August 22, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Report abuse |
  15. flipityflop

    I order 20 big macs, stuff my face, and throw the rest out in the dumpster next to the soup kitchen.

    August 22, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Report abuse | Reply
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