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. Dan

    And think how much more our obese nation actually eats, but doesn't need.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chubby

      You got that right.

      All told, 80% of our food is wasted.

      August 22, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Jerry

    The biggest waste of food I personally witnessed was at hospitals, assisted living & nursing homes, where whole plates of food are often thrown out.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tom

      Agree 100%. Everyday, everywhere, all around the country.

      When I bagged groceries as a kid, the bakery would throw all it's fresh breads and patries away at the end of each day. I asked why they can't be taken home by the employee's or donated. I was told that it would encourage employee's to 'hide' or otherwise not sell items that they wanted to keep for themselves. Basically they thought we were all theives and don't trust their employee's. This was Balducci's, formerly Sutton Place Gourmet, in Alexandria, VA. What a waste!!!

      August 22, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Report abuse |
  3. saywhat

    Well we can afford to waste whatever we like. We grow this food after all and we can hog it (literally if you have seen those contests) or waste it. Why make an issue of it? let millions around the world go hungry its their problem.They should grow their own food and more.
    good morning.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Juan


    August 22, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Report abuse |
  5. OregonTom

    Try shopping at grocery outlet style stores. These discount store often have great deals on fresh food that needs to be sold or thrown away. The discount store may not have evrything you need but it is worth it to stop by them first. Just stay out of the frozen section.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Report abuse |
  6. JCD

    People interested in this should check out 'The Big Waste' where Food Network chefs went around to grocery stores and only used the food that would be disposed of to create meals. It was interesting and enlightening.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Marvs257

    "•Stores overstock displays of fresh produce to give an impression of bounty" – Definition of First World problem.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Report abuse |
  8. DD

    Please remove any references to outside waste from my household! Reuse Repurpose Recycle

    August 22, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Carrie

    Yet the # of Americans needing food assistance is streadily increasing. Knowing this is the case it seems to me that there should be the ability for food to be distributed to those that need it. Secondly, food sits on store shelves for a reason, a large amount of Americans can not afford it. So why are we wasting food again, although marked the wealthiest nation on earth, there is a pretty serious problem right here at home.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Melissa

      Agreed. Well said!

      August 23, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |
  10. OregonTom

    I feel very thankfull right now for getting three square a day while so much is wasted while so many go hungry. It is a sad state of affairs also when a farmer can not make a profit of a food crop. We need to somehow export this excess.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Report abuse |
  11. TD

    I am single and this most certainly doesn't apply to me. Try 1% per month if that.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Ct

    Does this count the food that liberals eat?

    August 22, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Trevor

      Does this count all the food that conservatives eat?

      August 22, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dawn in Canada

      I thought conservatives only ate babies.

      August 22, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Luther51

    Considering the price of beef and some other food items, I often wonder how much stores throw out simply because shoppers refuse to pay that much and the product spoils.

    If stores would rather throw it out than discount it until it sells, the only motive I can think of is greed.

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

    A local deli/bakery gives the loaves of bread it didn't sell the day before to a local homeless shelter every day. That's one thing most grocery stores could do if they don't do it already.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Rasheed

    It is a waste of God's blessings. So many people are poor and hungry in USA and so many are dying in the world for lack of food yet we are wasting food here. What a pity !!!

    August 22, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Yawn

      Maybe the world simply needs a Walmart. It's interesting that when you go to a food shelf most of the people getting food are obese. What up with that?

      August 22, 2012 at 5:46 pm | Report abuse |
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