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. Kate, district 16

    No wonder everything cost so much. Us normal people have to be in The Hunger Games to even have a morsel.

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

    This is why I feel food banks and weekly boxes of food either picked up or delivered to those who are homebound is a better idea than food stamps. And, don't say that going to get your box is an inconvenience when you'd have to go shop anyway. And, don't complain that you don't like what is in the box when you aren't the one paying for it. I'm sure the elderly and disabled on food stamps would love to have a weekly box of groceries dropped off.

    August 22, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mockingjayjay

      wanna talk about waste? Let's take a trip to california and watch the produce rot In the fields because illegals make more money off of welfare benefits than to actually work in the fields. What a country!...

      August 22, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Guest

    If supermarket food is "cheap" I'd hate to see what they consider over-priced...

    August 22, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kate

      The price of food and everything has gone up drastically in my area in the last year. Anyone that thinks food is cheap must bs a 1 percenter. By the time you buy food, detergent, antiperspirant, etc. you are lucky to leave the store without spending $200 or more each week. On top of that, mortgage payments, car payments, insurance, taxes, kids clothes, utilities, etc. I pay the bills first, then things for the kids, then food last. America is one expensive place to live for those of us that actually play by the rules and pay our bills.

      August 22, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • CR from CA

      The article said food represents a small portion of the average American's budget. A report from 2008 found that Americans spend 6.9% of their income on food, which was less than any other country. Again, people, before spouting off about things with no evidence to support your ravings, do a little research. Otherwise you just look ignorant.

      http://mjperry.blogspot.com/2011/02/americans-still-have-cheapest-food-in.html

      August 22, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bummer

      Kate don't forget about the 600 dollar phone you have, the four hundred dollar x box(60$ games) the nail and hair salon, tha cable or sattelite tv, going out to eat, the 100 $ shoes you wear, and the flat screen tv u have. Get rid of all that nonsense and then you earn the right to cry...

      August 22, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • lilsfgal

      Go food shopping in a foreign country...trust me US food IS cheap.

      August 22, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Steve

      I live in Canada and each month for my family I spend about $400 on groceries and everything related. That includes medication, should any be necessary, cleaning supplies, cat litter and cat food, garbage bags and regular food. About half of that goes to fresh fruit, milk, vegitables, fresh juices, and about 95% of what I buy (in regards to food) is local (made with in 100 miles of my place). We eat out once and a while but up in Canada it is in fact cheaper to eat healier than to go out to McDonalds to get meals.

      August 22, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Lucy N

    I am certain that there is a lot of waste going on here, but I'm curious about where they get their stats from? How can they possibly know that an average family of 4 wastes 25% of their food? If they're asking people how much food they waste, you can bet people aren't going to tell them. If they're going through garbage and comparing what’s thrown out to what the stores are selling, I’m quite sure that would not accurately depict the exact numbers they're coming up with (how do they know what comes from what household and how many people are in those households to come up with these statistics??). I think this is a bit off, honestly. Since when has food been a "small portion of many Americans' budget"? That's pretty dumb. Ask the struggling family what their biggest expense is (other than rent/mortgage) and you can bet they would say food. And I'm dubious about their numbers regarding fresh water consumption. “Food production accounts for 80% of America's fresh water consumption” really?? Hmmm. That seems a little exaggerated to me. Not that I have anything relevant to cite, but a quick search online shows very different numbers from that. So again, please show me how you came to this 80% conclusion! I'm not sure I understand the intent of this "report" (based on WHAT research?). If they want people to eat everything they bought, well, let's talk about the country's obesity rate and rise of diabetes. If they expect companies who are packaging food in a way that forces one to buy more than they could possibly need, well, it's a lovely thought. Of course, the focus was more on people wasting food in their own homes, so that seems to cancel out the intent to change how retailers put out food. Honestly, the whole thing is rather pointless, appears to be baseless (unless they can cite plausible research), and may only serve to give someone a better excuse for eating more than they should. In the end, I suspect it’s an attempt at scaring people into trying to reduce methane emissions. While I believe in saving our planet, dubious reports and quasi “we could all die” type articles, do not seem like the way to go about it.

    August 22, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Daniel B.

      Analysis paralysis(t)!

      August 22, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • CR from CA

      You missed the point. The point is not eat everything you buy, the point is buy what you need and not waste food either at home or in restaurants. Also, they said where the information for the article came from – instead of whining about how they don't include all the details of the research in a news article, get off your butt and go read the report they named.

      I find it incredibly ironic that you diss the lack of scientific detail, and then proceed to base your arguments on your own personal perceptions, which you admit have no relevant citations to support.

      August 22, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Jo

    As my mom used to say your eyes are bigger than your stomach

    August 22, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Maria

    The solution is to have really great sales when the item is about 1 week to expiration date. It breaks my heart to see seniors shopping the area of the supermarket that has really old fruit on sale because that's all they can afford. Sell the items at a great price while they are still good and help out those in the community and you're still making some money as opposed to throwing out the items and making no money.

    August 22, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Andrew

    Americans are pigs. I know.

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

    Wasted food? I disagree. You see it put to use on peoples' obese waist-lines all around you.

    August 22, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Kate, district 16

    Every day in the outer districts, children are going to bed hungry. You in the inner circle feast while the rest of us starve.

    August 22, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
  10. someone

    The food supermarkets throw out is not given away to needy people because of the health department. Should someone get sick the grocer can be sued. I had three kids working for our grocery to know this.

    The Driscol strawberries shown in the photo mold very easily if not kept at a certain temperature. We buy them regularly and must look closely at each package before we get them. One strawberry with mold with contaminate the whole package.

    Restaurants can't give away excess food because of health department regulations. People get sick and sue thus the heavy regulations.

    August 22, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
  11. nojo1

    I've started to compost most of what I don't eat, which in turn fertilizes the soil where I grow my veggies : )

    August 22, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Needed

    We don't have a cheap low cost transport system, otherwise, the wasted food can distribute the poorest families in the US. It really hurts to think about all the waste food while there are still people going hungry in the US.

    August 22, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Philip

    1.) Don't eat more than your share.
    2.) Eat everything on your plate.
    3.) Especially fruits and live veggies
    4.) Plenty of sunshine so your body can rid itself of excess fat and toxins.
    Problem solved. Both of them. Wasted food and obesity. Solved.

    August 22, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Lucy

    Wanna talk about waste? Let's take a little trip to California where the crops rot in the fields because illegals make more money off of welfare benefits than to actually work...

    August 22, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
  15. rjack

    This is a big challenge for us at home. Just the two of us now, the end of the leftovers often get tossed. Though I try harder now with success, there is still waste, which I keep track of. Don't even get me started with the garden, though I have given much away to food bank etc.

    August 22, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse |
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