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. ug

    Only when it is given ti illegal aliens...

    August 22, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jay jay

      Oh your talking about the illegal Mexicans in California that no longer want to go in the fields to reap the crops because they get more money from welfare. What a country!...

      August 22, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      News flash Jay jay: Illegal immigrants don't qualify for welfare.

      August 22, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Christine

    I have a hard time not wasting food.

    As a single person with no children, it is hard to get portions small enough. I watch my retired parents struggle with the same difficulty. Food sellers make it so much less expensive to by more, then it sits.

    This is true at restaurants and groceries. What would happen if food were truly priced by the serving, with fewer/smaller servings enjoying the same benefits as larger ones?

    August 22, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • bs1

      You need to learn how to stora and manage food better, not blame retailers for your lack of those skills. I'm single and I like to cook and yet I do not waste food. I cook in multi serving portions, and then I either interleave the servings of a couple dishes over the course of a week to maintain some variety, or I will vacuum bag and freeze extra portions for use later.

      August 22, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Christine

      @bs1 Interesting. What do you do with salad, raw vegetables and such? I don't cook many foods...mainly eat light and raw... a big variety of vegetables and fruit salads, fresh bread made locally without preservatives (so much healthier, but tends to mold in 2-3 days). I am also out a lot. I'm not aware of vacuum bagging food? Thank you for this tip!

      August 22, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • bs1

      Vacuum bag = Foodsaver, prevents frezer burn on frozen foods. For bread, refrigerate it and it will keep just fine without molding. You can also freeze bread and slice it in the frozen state readily and the slices will defrost in a minute or two. I don't seem to have trouble with salad type components lasting at least a week in the refrigerator and that is enough time to use up a head of lettuce or whatever. Vegetables of course freeze well with a quick blanching.

      August 22, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Report abuse |
  3. chrissy

    Well this article grossly exagerates the numbers by attributing the wastes to families! The actual numbers that a family of 4 spend on food, do not even come remotely close to this!

    August 22, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • bri

      They are averaging from the gross national average of food wasted per year per capita.

      August 22, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • clc

      Its bad editing. The NRDC report states that the monthly amounts for a family of four is actually an annual amount (Page 12 of the report). I thought that CNN fixed it, but it looks like they are still keeping that inflated and erroneous amount. I wish I had $1365-$2275 extra to spend every month! The real per month is like $100-$185 or so for a family of four.

      August 22, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mallory Simon, CNN News blog editor

      We have fixed the error to state that the total dollar amount is annually, instead of monthly.

      August 22, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Rodboy

    This article is interesting. It is doubtful that families waste this much food. It is funny that they show strawberries as an example which is idiotic – strawberries ALWAYS lose 25% from harvest to sales ALWAYS. CNN needs to get a life besides pandering to the DEMOS.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • clc

      Rodboy, you are right. The report states that families was those amounts (in dollars) per year, not per month (Page 12 of the report). I bet we all would like to have an extra $1300-$2200 to waste! It is bad editing on CNNs part.

      August 22, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      And you base this on your extensive research, no doubt.

      August 22, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Report abuse |
  5. dewed

    A politically well timed piece, given the massive increases in food prices coming right around the corner.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Wellington, Duke of Potatobrooke

    No one can even afford groceries these days. Much less gas or payment on a new Land Rover.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Report abuse |
  7. BinaryTooth

    Obama needs to step in and regulate our garbage!!!!

    Obama 2012

    August 22, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Report abuse |
  8. chrissy

    MOST families of four do not even have that amount of income, much less spend all of it on food!

    August 22, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Adam

    Once at my local grocery store, I noticed a manager was clearing out bread that was *close8 to expiration date (NOT expired). I asked why they didn't give it to food shelters. He told me their policy was to not donate because they didn't want to risk the liability.

    Thank you litigious society.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • SunnyD

      There are actually good samaritan laws preventing liability from donated goods. Just FYI.

      August 22, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Will

    Disgusting

    August 22, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
  11. pork&beans

    I'm not sure what families they are referring to, but I bust my hind end to provide food for my family.
    Eating out used to be common for us. Not anymore. I can't spend near the amount of money on groceries this article suggests.
    And yet, food banks are seeing record amounts of people showing up.
    Like everything else, backwards we go.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
  12. THE IRISH

    DRINK YOU MEALS!

    We've been livin' off Whiskey, beer and communion wafers for hundreds of years! it ain't hurt us one bit!

    August 22, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
  13. chrissy

    Thank you @ clc! I volunteer at a local outreach center and its appalling to read these figures, when you know in FACT they are UNTRUE!

    August 22, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Report abuse |
  14. James

    I would estimate that food waste at home is 5%. With a aditional 25% gave away. As i have a large garden and orchard. You grow your own you hate to see it go to waste. And 5% gave back. As some I do not grow comes back from people I give to. As things I don't grow or home canned by others. And most waste is commposted for reuse in the garden. So It is rare to see food at my house in the trash can. But if you look in the dumpster behind a apartment complex. There is a lot of food in them. And were people can only buy there food at a store. I think the problem is that it is so easy to raise it on the store shelf. That people have lost respect for it. You raise it in dirt and you soon respect food.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      Reminds me of an old joke.

      Don't leave your car unlocked i the fall.

      Not because anyone would steal anything – but you might come back an find 3 bushels of zuccini in it!

      August 22, 2012 at 10:43 pm | Report abuse |
  15. andrewi31

    Too much ready-made food? Twice as many rotisserie chickens as your customers need Mr. Grocer? We still eventually have to pay for what you can't make and can't sell. I guess it's a total lie about the thin profit margins of grocers.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
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