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. dasea

    I am definitely not doing my part as an American to keep this number so high. I wish us socialist were in a position EVER to do that. I MEAN EVER. WOW. I WALK MILES FOR MY FOOD. NO WAY I WILL THROW 40% OF ANYTHING AWAY UNLESS I DO SOMETHING TERRIBLY WRONG IN COOKING IT. Maybe food should be regulated. That is a really really shocking number. it makes me very sad to think about personally, and not even for the many starving people. I personally could do some much with 40% of all food I see. Imagine how big my thanks giving feast could be. i would have thousands and thousands of turkeys! That's a lot of walking though.

    August 22, 2012 at 7:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • dasea

      I blame cops and store owners. straight up.

      August 22, 2012 at 7:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • flipityflop

      People no longer place value on food, why would you when you can just go to the store and get another package? When each family pretty much grew their own food, they knew the hard work that went in to growing it and would never waste it because it was the only food they had. I understand that today the population is mostly living in urban areas but if enough familes grew a portion of their food not only would they be less willing to waste but it is aslo make the families healthier in the long run.

      August 22, 2012 at 7:51 pm | Report abuse |
  2. jon

    The food that is about to expire should go directly to churches, food pantries and soup kitchens, not the dumpster.

    August 22, 2012 at 7:47 pm | Report abuse |
  3. larry5

    A few years ago a local restaurant was fined and threatened for giving food to a locally run rescue agency. They also threatened several grocery stores for also donating food. I think there are legislators that go out of their way to make sure we behave the way they think we should. I don't like the idea of too much protection from my government in areas where I can make decisions. I wish they'd do a better job doing their own job.

    August 22, 2012 at 7:48 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Reduce

    "Reduce, re-use, recycle". I'm going to go into my cabinet and freezer and not buy any more groceries until I use up what I've got. Here I come, canned soup and applesauce.

    August 22, 2012 at 7:51 pm | Report abuse |
  5. redneckssuck

    Like my pappy always said "eat every bean and pea on your plate"

    August 22, 2012 at 7:56 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Belseth

    Part of the problem is the supply chain by shipping food from all over the country and world eats up most of the shelf life. I've found produce often spoils within days of purchase. It's why I try to go to Whole Foods and farmers markets. The food lasts three or four times longer so less goes to waste. I avoid milk because small containers are expensive and quarts and gallons never get used up before they go bad. Traditionally in Europe and years back in the states people would grocery shop every day. It avoids waste since you buy what you intend to cook that night.

    August 22, 2012 at 7:57 pm | Report abuse |
  7. AC summers

    The laws need to be changed. We have kids who go hungry and familes who cant afford groceries but the grocery stores are throwing the food away. It is shameful, wasteful and hurtful. On top of that food pantries and kitchens are struggling to make it.

    August 22, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • hv19006

      Many businesses don't donate unsold products because if someone get sick they'll get sued even if it wasn't there fault.

      August 22, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Susie

      Where do you think that most of the food banks get their stocks from. I sorted vegetables at a local food back that was donated by distributers as well.

      August 22, 2012 at 9:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Evan

      That's not entirely true. I volunteer at a food bank ever week, and a lot of local grocery stores donate some of their unneeded food to us. The problem is that this food is often in such bad condition that we have to throw it away anyway. While you have a nice idea in theory, it won't be solved by distributing unhealthy food to the poor.

      August 22, 2012 at 9:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kevin Turner

      I admire the feelings and passion, on this subject....Now comes Reality....The moment, a plant grows, a cafe is born, a pig is born, a baby robin hatches, it will DIE in some way shape or form and go back to the earth. Its not waste.

      August 22, 2012 at 9:36 pm | Report abuse |
  8. albert

    Not all of that is true, as a high percent the consumer buys is garbage and not fit to eat

    August 22, 2012 at 8:05 pm | Report abuse |
  9. t3chn0ph0b3

    Gamma irradiate our entire food supply. That would fix most of the waste.

    August 22, 2012 at 8:19 pm | Report abuse |
  10. aaa

    Cherish what you have today

    August 22, 2012 at 8:21 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Jessy

    II've been to the states. By the looks of things, I don't think much food is being wasted. Well maybe the vegetables.

    August 22, 2012 at 8:23 pm | Report abuse |
  12. lawdog1521

    An environmental action group making a report that criticizes everything. Color me surprised.

    August 22, 2012 at 8:38 pm | Report abuse |
  13. bigfam

    I have a family of ten (me, the mrs. and eight kiddies). NOTHING goes to waste in my home! :)

    August 22, 2012 at 8:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • jake106

      I hear you on that! I've got a family of six, and my kids don't waste a single drop of food! Lol...We can't keep enough in the house. The only good thing about it all is, we hardly have any processed foods in the house, it's mostly fresh fruits and vegetables. So I don't really mind if they eat it all, at least they eat healthy.

      August 22, 2012 at 9:09 pm | Report abuse |
  14. David B

    A more significant waste is the crap people buy around the holidays as presents that winds up in the landfills/closets. Plus the food is generally biodegradable and made in USA,

    August 22, 2012 at 8:53 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Chaz

    For what its worth, mother nature intended organic material to rot naturally (and create methane gas) so that the seeds held within the fruit of said plant could reach the soil and propagate the plant in the following growing season. So saying this is a major problem shows a lack of perspective on the author's part. The idea of farmers leaving crops in their fields because the cost of harvesting is greater than the potential income is an event directly correlated to the price of diesel fuel. That is the driving factor in the cost of farming, and when diesel cost less to refine than unleaded gasoline but costs $1 per gallon more... I think we have the root of this problem. Lower petrol costs = lower farmer costs = lower food costs = more opportunity for a wider economic spectrum to eat healthy produce if they so choose. Despite what everyone thinks about Americans, some eat poor quality food by choice many others eat it due to $$$ concerns.

    August 22, 2012 at 8:54 pm | Report abuse |
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