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. rrsales

    People do you not see where this is going? They think they know better how to take care of the Global Citizens. Eventually you won't even have to worry about wasting food because it will be rationed out to you by your New Global Government. Welcome to the Antichrist Kingdom on Earth! I am not sticking around. Jesus said "Watch ye therefore and pray always that ye might be accounted worthy to escape all these things and stand before the Son of Man."

    August 28, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  2. d

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

    Enough said, it's Obama's fault.

    August 28, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  3. We Can Do IT!

    Seeing these food waste statistics is as exciting as it is depressing. I see opportunity. There is so much room for our country to improve on! I am sure there will be new ideas and solutions to this problem that will create jobs in America while reducing wasteful behavior. I created a yak about this article for anyone who wants to discuss in real time. http://www.yakka.im/yak/40-of-u-s-food-wasted-report-says

    August 28, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  4. gisthatright

    Alot of the the waste is due to marketing. You know...you can pay $1.00 for a single serving of mac&cheese or $1.00 for a box that serves 4. Which would you buy? If I could pay $0.30 for a single serving, I would waste less or none at all.

    August 28, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Henrique

    The report has omitted a significant percentage of wasted food due to overeating by the huge number of obese people in the states. Their total food requirement could 50% of the consumed food !

    August 28, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Jason

    I would like to know where they get these numbers from i have a house hold of seven and we dont throw away half as much as they are saying. STOP FRABICATING NUMBERS TO RAISE FOOD PRICES!!!!!

    August 29, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Darryl A

      Actually they are not referring to families itself, but of the market in supply and demand.We tend to produce and put out for sale more than is possible to eat(sad to say, but there are many who are unable to afford this food and are left hungry... while it is left unsold and eventually rotting). When stores are selling food, much of it goes to waste, primaries produce and other foods that are perishable and are never sold to consumers. Also they include the fact that much of produce that is grown is left to waste and not harvested. Due to the fact that there isn't as much of a demand for it, so it is left to rot on the field being 'unsellable'.

      August 29, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Report abuse |
  7. EdL

    I wonder if health guardian Bloomberg would be happy if he learned many of those he is so worried about did not finish their 32oz sugary sodas. If some only swallowed 16oz of the 32oz's what a great thing this would be. He could be coming close to eliminating obesity, at least in New York, if he has not already done so.

    August 29, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  8. K M Venkatraman

    I am visiting USA for the first time and though amazed by the orderlyness discipline in public life and other aspects of clenliness etc I am very sad to see the extent of compulsive consumerism that is evident in all aspects of life generating enough avoidable waste especially food. I am also concerned with the amount of plastic (thin plastic bags) which are being used blatantly in packaging and carrying goods. We in india are enforcing no plastic zones in cities and slowly decreasing the usage of plastic bags in carrying consumer goods. I am of the view the progress of a country should be measured in the standards of extent of consumenrism it displays but how it manages this level of consumerism with minial waste and environmental damage,

    August 29, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  9. LindaM

    "Food represents a small portion of many Americans' budgets"... Whose budget is he looking at? Food is NOT cheap.

    August 29, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  10. alumette

    It's not only the food, it is the energy involved to harvest it, handle it , store it and process it. Waste is something we should minimize to almost nil. We are used to have too much of everything, so we end up destroying food. Poor appropriation when some people have nothing to eat. We need to fix that problem.

    August 29, 2012 at 9:39 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Randy

      As a member of the fresh food industry I would just say , If you can tell me exactly how much a person is going to buy on a daily basis, weeks to months ahead of time because it takes awhile for some things to grow, then we as an industry can cut waste dramatically. Real world people eat erratically and unpredictable.

      August 30, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      It's not a simple issue to resolve, but we can make some headway with this. I wouldn't mind paying 5-10 cents more an item to subsidize a federal program to ship excess food (mostly packaged and/or preserved) to the 1 billion in this world who live in chronic hunger.

      August 31, 2012 at 10:08 am | Report abuse |
  11. farmerjack

    The article states that 7% of fields are not harvested. The author must not understand that planted fields go unharvested because those acres are either drowned out or died by drought and never raised any grain.

    August 29, 2012 at 9:47 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  12. hubert39

    40% of food wasted? I think most of us old folks knew this. The question has always been? Why not lower the prices of all the food so it would be sold, especially fruit and veggies. Banana's at Publix is .69 cents a pound. I go to another store and buy then for .49 cents a pound. The store always sells out. Publix stores throw half of theirs away.
    Shop around you can find fruit half the price at some stores.

    August 30, 2012 at 8:17 am | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Meh

    Blame Monsanto and label him as an enemy of this country... then target him for execution. Brilliant marketing mind – total enemy of the US agriculture. But we just hail him as a genius and accept that American farmers are killing themselves....whatever I guess.

    August 30, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Meh

    Blame Monsanto

    August 30, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Meh

    Do a basic search on Monsanto if you are unaware of the atrocities that company is committing against the planet and especially this country.

    August 30, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse | Reply
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