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. tdmitchell

    Retailers would love to give the food away. One, they would get a tax deduction for their charitable contribution. Two, it gives them a chance to look better in the eyes of their community, which promotes more business, if you look like a contributing member of the community. Food safety regulations are so out the door from people suing from "dumpster diving" that even the dumpsters have to be locked now. A grocery store can be sued if you pick something out of its dumpsters and eat it when it has gone off. Terribly stupid but true. You should dive at your own risk with no liability on the grocery store. Blame the attorneys for locking this down and the opportunists looking to get rich.

    August 23, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Dr. No

    I think between my wife's terrible cooking and picky kids, I'm responsible for 1% of that overage. My bad!

    August 23, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Renae

    So wasteful. There are people starving, you know? America must think of an idea to not put so much food to waste.

    August 23, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
  4. hidden powers

    they are laying to you. Nothing gets wasted. They throw it all to the pigs to eat. Then you eat the pigs.

    August 23, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Jesus Christ Superstar

    Laws prevent grocery stores from selling expired items, even though they may still be edible. Some states even say that it is illegal to donate this food to a homeless shelter as they are afraid companies would get sued. So yeah, throw out and waste food.

    August 23, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Report abuse |
  6. mattmchugh

    One word: Composting.

    August 23, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Cait

    "Food represents a small portion of many Americans' budgets" Really? Speaking as one of those who aren't affluent I find that wholly false. Besides the other consumables like gas and non-food grocery items, food is one of the hardest expenses to fit into a small budget (example: pay my credit card, or have food for a week), unless you like to eat ramen noodles seven days a week. Grocery items seem to raise in price all the time too. I don't know who these "many Americans" are, but I'm quite sure they don't represent most of Americans.

    August 23, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Aud

    40% of food wasted? I can believe it.

    August 23, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • nyc artist

      Yes, we can buy less, but then the supermarkets and restaurants just throw the remaining food away. What we need is better programs to get unbought food from these places to homeless shelters.

      August 24, 2012 at 11:09 am | Report abuse |
    • zandhcats

      Local food banks should go out to the bakery shops & restaurants every evening to collect the unwanted food instead of let the food go to the dumpster.

      August 24, 2012 at 11:44 am | Report abuse |
  9. Joe Citizen

    I see this article is implying that food is too cheap, and that is a matter of opinion. It sounds as if you wrote this report for the markets have a reason to raise the price of food. WE do have the responsibility to manage our food budgets, but I have no idea how the author came up with these statistics. I sometime have to through food away because it's not safe to eat, and some of the fresh stuff that is available at the supermarkets have been radiated to kill bugs, and it does something weird to the fruit causing it to rot fast and/or grow mold and fungus. The strawberry's in the pic above are the same brand I saw yesterday at the supermarket, and half of them were already starting to grow mold hair. This kind of thing is a huge problem too, in which I saw no reference to. Most food thrown away in my house is from these factors and nothing to do with them being cheap. We have responsibility to be help the environment, so stop producing food that goes bad too soon.

    August 23, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tim Citizen

      " but I have no idea how the author came up with these statistics."

      http://www.nrdc.org/food/files/wasted-food-IP.pdf

      Try clicking on the link the author provides for where the statistics come from.

      August 23, 2012 at 11:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alex

      I honestly don't understand why somebody who understands so little decides to post in public forums, and I'm not just trying to be mean. You say that you saw no reference to waste that occurs in supermarkets, are you serious? The article expressly states that food is wasted at EVERY step from "field to plate".

      The article does not imply that food is cheap relative to a person's specific financial state, such as your own, so making a personal connection to the price of food to your own budget is absolutely meaningless. If food is not expensive enough to prevent 40% of it being wasted, it is too cheap.

      August 24, 2012 at 10:58 am | Report abuse |
    • Lost in the Flip

      Actually, fruits should go bad right away if they are fresh. If it stays fresh a long time, it means there are insecticides and other preservatives added to them to increase shelf life. So my advice is don't buy a lot of them and buy them in season. Yup Americans tend to buy in bulks hence costco and sam's clubs are popular. The portion size is definitely ridiculous in the restaurants, as if the food sprouts on the plate with magic. My cousins who go home to the Philippines complain how small the portion is in the restaurants that they have to order two or three burgers to satisfy their hunger.

      I do see the wastefulness here in the States. Don't get me wrong, I love it here, but I came from a third world country so I see what waste is.

      August 24, 2012 at 11:34 am | Report abuse |
    • onestarman

      I believe the LESSON we need to Learn is that the FOOD Production system is WASTEFUL. In this time of coming GLOBAL FAMINE due to Climate change we will need to be Much More Careful of Effectively Using the food we are able to Produce.

      August 24, 2012 at 11:39 am | Report abuse |
    • realfoodroad

      Your grocery-store produce rots quickly because it has been off the plant it grew on for at least a week before you ever get it home. Try buying your produce locally, from farmstands and farmers markets; it's picked that day, and will last much longer in your properly cold refrigerator.

      August 24, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Farida

    Its really sad :(((

    August 23, 2012 at 7:50 pm | Report abuse |
  11. jorge

    they must have focused on homes like Romney because in my home we eat left overs.

    August 23, 2012 at 11:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • frank

      Jorge...hmmm..obviously latino and democrat

      August 24, 2012 at 10:08 am | Report abuse |
    • Kulas Squared

      The wealthy don't waste anything, especially money, so no, Romney and his family most assuredly do not waste food. Besides, have you seen his family? All physically fit. So food isn't a priority to his family other than eating it to survive.

      August 24, 2012 at 10:34 am | Report abuse |
    • Annie

      Frank, what does the fact that he's possibly Latino have anything to do with his comment?

      August 24, 2012 at 10:46 am | Report abuse |
    • Po Boy

      You can't base physical fitness on looks.

      August 24, 2012 at 11:23 am | Report abuse |
    • zandhcats

      Do you think they eat less? Realistically,it requires more times and money to maintain good physically look, they do care about food to keep them healthy. Rich have money they careless about waste,look or read about their lifestyles.

      August 24, 2012 at 11:54 am | Report abuse |
  12. ericgoestoholland

    And somehow obesity is still a problem :)

    August 24, 2012 at 1:30 am | Report abuse |
  13. Alissa

    This article is mostly true, although I don't believe that this is due to the "low cost of food". Food is not cheap at all. I struggle to keep food on the table all the time at my home (we are a familly of 8) and are still guilty at times of throwing food away. Sometimes we forget something is in the refridgerator and it goes bad (and most of the time fresh fruits and veggies go bad within a day or two after bringing them home from the grocery store). The bulk of the wasted food in society, however, comes from the restaurants and grocery stores who throw away massive amounts of perfectly good food! To me, that's the real outrage. At least donate it to homeless shelters or missions in the area.

    August 24, 2012 at 1:34 am | Report abuse |
    • Lindsey

      If your fruits and veggies are going bad in just a day or two, you are not storing them correctly. Spend about 30 minutes online researching the storage needs to lengthen the life of the specific produce types that are going bad. I'm not talking about spending money on products that supposedly extend produce life either, just storing them properly. For instance, ome items are better in the fridge, some at room temperature. Some leafy items are best stored in a glass of water, like a flower in a vase. Some items should not be stored near other specific items, etc. You could definitely save yourself some money, with some knowledge and very little effort. I hardly ever have to throw away any produce, even though I could afford to, it isn't necessary.

      August 24, 2012 at 10:04 am | Report abuse |
    • MMR

      My tips for keeping vegetables:

      *Store them on the top shelf in your refrigerator.
      *Keep them in all clear containers. (I use clear plastic or glass containers for everything. If you just spend a little to replace all of your translucent or opaque containers for clear containers, you will save so much more on produce in such a short amount of time that your containers will "pay for themselves" VERY soon.
      *Some vegetables keep very well like cabbage, carrots, beets, celery, and kale. Kale is nearly indestructible.
      *Leafy greens like romaine, etc–don't cut them, tear them to keep the edges from browning. Wash them and save them in a salad spinner. Keeping them in such a container makes it easy to keep moisture without keeping the vegetables so wet that they rot. Make a habit of checking that container daily.
      *Many websites have great tips on proper vegetable storage. Just spending a few minutes to learn some new techniques could save you big bucks over time when you implement their advice.

      Trust me, this works. I never have to throw food away because of forgetting what's available. Nothing has a chance to rot. I eat a vegetable-based diet and have to keep up on what I have so that nothing rots before I use it. I can't fathom the idea of veggies rotting within a day or two of getting them home from the store.

      August 24, 2012 at 10:52 am | Report abuse |
  14. mp

    Depressing. There are so many problems like this one that we can do our part as a household, but it's not going to do much because habits like this are engrained in the American pysche. To think of all those people who go hungry everyday in our country and others, this just depresses me.

    August 24, 2012 at 10:18 am | Report abuse |
  15. frances kozlowski

    An enraging article, but worth reading.

    August 24, 2012 at 10:31 am | Report abuse |
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